Federal judge strikes down Nevada’s criminal-libel law

Friday, October 2, 1998

Nevada's 87-year-old criminal libel law violates the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled earlier this week.

The Nevada Press Association, a nonprofit organization that represents 11 daily and 29 weekly newspapers in the state, filed a lawsuit in July claiming the law infringed on First Amendment freedoms.

The law defined criminal libel as “malicious defamation, expressed by printing, writing, signs, pictures or the like, tending to blacken the memory of the dead, or to impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue or reputation, or to publish the natural defects of a living person or persons, or community of persons, or association of persons, and thereby to expose them to public hatred, contempt or ridicule.”

In general, truth is a complete defense to a libel claim. However, under the 1911 Nevada law, the truth of a statement is a defense only if the statement was published “for good motive and for justifiable ends.”

The state attorney general's office agreed with the Nevada Press Association that the law was unconstitutional.

Federal Judge Johnnie Rawlinson ruled in Nevada Press Association v. Del Papa that the law was unconstitutionally vague and overly broad and “impermissibly allows for punishment to be imposed for the publication of truthful statements which are protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”

Kent Lauer, the executive director of the Nevada Press Association,said: “The judge properly recognized that this law was indefensible. The law's disregard for the First Amendment was offensive and an embarrassment.

“We challenged this law as a matter of principle because the law did not recognize truth as a complete defense,” Lauer said.

Even though no one had been prosecuted under the law recently, Lauer said that “it was still on the books and the possibility always existed that an overzealous prosecutor could use the law to intimidate someone.”

Kevin Doty, general counsel for the Nevada Press Association, said: “Over the past five to 10 years, a few district attorneys have raised the possibility of charging someone under this statute. The threat is real; just having the law on the books chills speech.

“The attorney general's office told us that while they are sworn to uphold the law, they could find no way to defend this law,” Doty said. “The attorney general's office flatly told us the law was unconstitutional.”

Bob Harmon, public information officer for the attorney general's office, told said: “The reasons we decided not to defend this law were twofold. First, we agreed with the Nevada Press Association. Secondly, the law was hardly ever used.”

Doty said he hopes the law will be “quietly removed from the books. … We do not need a law where someone can go to jail for their written or spoken word.”