“Former Utah Police Chief Charged with Criminal Defamation”

The Deseret News reports:

Former Naples Police Chief Steven C. Guibord is charged with criminal defamation, a class B misdemeanor, in Uintah County. Prosecutors allege that he used the name of the city’s current police chief [Mark Watkins] to post derogatory comments on the online memorial pages for the two fallen Border Patrol agents….

Guibord — posing as Watkins — posted comments on memorial pages for two Border Patrol agents that are offensive to law enforcement officers, according to state investigators….

Clark’s page on the Officer Down Memorial Page website included a comment attributed to Watkins that said, “I realize that the Border Patrol is just a security organization, but we, in the police services recognize your sacrifice.”

Rojas’ page contained a similar comment, also attributed to Watkins, that referred to the Border Patrol as a “security business.”

For those in the law enforcement community, being identified as a security guard is considered a serious insult….

The theory is that Guibord’s use of Watkins’ name — which essentially states to readers that Watkins posted the comments — is a knowing falsehood that injures Watkins’ reputation. One could argue that the falsehood isn’t defamatory, because a reasonable reader wouldn’t perceive the statements as that derogatory, and therefore wouldn’t have a dimmer view of Watkins. But given the audience, and the fact that Watkins is a police chief, I suspect that the attribution of the statements to Watkins would indeed injure Watkins’ reputation.

And if this is so, then the criminal libel prosecution would likely be permissible: Though Garrison v. Louisiana (1964) held that criminal libel laws must require a showing that the speech is a knowing or reckless falsehood, Utah Code § 76-9-404 — which says, “[a] person is guilty of criminal defamation if he knowingly communicates to any person orally or in writing any information which he knows to be false and knows will tend to expose any other living person to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule” — embodies such a requirement. (For more on this, see I.M.L. v. State (Utah. App. 2002), which struck down a different Utah criminal libel statute.) Though most states have repealed their criminal libel statutes, the remaining statutes, if sufficiently narrow (as Utah’s seems to be), are likely constitutional.

Thanks to Dan Laidman for the pointer.