Prompted by college student’s case, Colorado repeals criminal libel law

Colorado has repealed its criminal libel law, under which a person who questioned someone’s “honesty, integrity, virtue or reputation” could be sent to prison.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the repeal into law Friday. It takes effect in September.

The move follows years of litigation involving a former college student, Thomas Mink, who sued after police searched his home and seized his computer in 2003. Officers were investigating a complaint from a University of Northern Colorado professor, who claimed Mink libeled him in The Howling Pig, a satirical newsletter featuring a photo of the professor edited to look like Gene Simmons. Mink was never charged, but he sued the prosecutor who signed the search warrant on constitutional grounds.

Mink settled the case in 2011, but not before a judge found that the prosecutor should have known the Howling Pig was protected by the First Amendment, and thus she did not have “probable cause” to search Mink’s home. An appeals court declined to rule on the constitutionality of the the criminal libel law itself, however.

Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, introduced legislation to repeal the law after hearing about Mink’s case. It passed in the state Senate unanimously, and on a 37-26 vote in the House.

The original law was enacted in 1883 in an attempt to prevent duels, though modern prosecutions for criminal libel are rare.

At least 12 other states have similar laws on the books, although their constitutionality remains in question. Those who feel their reputations have been wrongly damaged can continue to file civil lawsuits in Colorado, as is the case in all states.