A federal appeals court rules that NH’s criminal libel law is constitutional

The 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger

If we know anything about libel law, then we know that false, defamatory speech is not a crime. It’s a civil matter, to be worked out between the two parties in court. Right? Well … hold on.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that New Hampshire’s criminal-libel statute passes constitutional muster. The case was especially pernicious because the defendant, Robert Frese, was charged with claiming that the police chief in his town of Exeter was a coward who had “covered up for a dirty cop.” That statement may be entirely false; but the idea that someone could be charged with a misdemeanor for criticizing the police is chilling indeed.

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In 2019, I gave the Exeter Police Department a New England Muzzle Award for charging Frese with a misdemeanor, writing that the New Hampshire law amounted to “seditious libel, making it a crime to criticize the government.” It’s something we thought had faded away with John Peter Zenger, a New York printer who was acquitted nearly 300 years ago.

But Judge Jeffrey Howard, noting that the Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 Times v. Sullivan decision does not protect knowingly false, defamatory speech directed at public officials, ruled that Frese did not have a case. Howard wrote:

Mindful of the Supreme Court’s guidance that “the knowingly false statement and the false statement made with reckless disregard of the truth, do not enjoy constitutional protection[,]” we conclude that Frese’s allegations fall short of asserting viable constitutional claims.

No one would be surprised that Howard would assert that Times v. Sullivan doesn’t protect knowingly false, defamatory statements. But his assertion that such statements may form the basis of a criminal case rather than a civil lawsuit is worrisome — especially at a time when there are rumbles coming out of the Supreme Court that it may be inclined to dial back libel protections, as I wrote for GBH News last year.

Judge Howard and his colleagues had a chance to stand up for freedom of speech. Instead, they chose something else.