Cases of alleged criminal defamation have made the news this fall in Zimbabwe, Gambia, Rwanda, Azerbaijan, Singapore, India — and Valley Center, where city leaders did not like a resident’s yard sign complaining about drainage. That case, which just ended with the city paying $8,000 to settle a federal lawsuit, should motivate Kansas lawmakers at last to get rid of the state’s un-American and unconstitutional law criminalizing speech with fines and up to a year in jail — a law mirrored by a local ordinance in Valley Center’s case.
Not only do such laws put Kansas at odds with the First Amendment’s broad protections of free speech, they put Kansas in the same legal league with Third World countries. As Human Rights Watch said in a report titled “Turning Critics Into Criminals” about Indonesia’s defamation laws: “Criminal penalties are always disproportionate punishments for reputational harm and should be abolished.”
Eliminating all mention of criminal libel and criminal defamation from Kansas law wouldn’t mean it’s open season for those who knowingly spread false information. But the accountability for doing so in a free country that values civil liberties comes not through criminal prosecution but in civil court, via litigation in pursuit of monetary damages.
A federal judge struck down the Kansas statute in 1993 as unconstitutional, yet the law remains. And every few years some overzealous arm of government — including Shawnee County in 1991 and 1993, Sumner County in 1992 and Wyandotte County in 2001 — decides that something somebody said is worthy of prosecution for criminal defamation. Journalists often are targeted in these rare criminal libel cases, but not always, as in Valley Center.
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That case targeted homeowner Jarrod West after he posted a sign in his yard last June declaring: “Dear Valley Center, I did not buy Lake Front Property! Fix this problem. That’s what I pay taxes for. P.S. Joel This Means You!” — City Administrator Joel Pile.
In response, the city named West as a defendant in a criminal complaint, alleging the sign exposed Pile to public contempt and ridicule. It dismissed the complaint weeks later without prejudice, meaning it could refile. Then last month the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri filed a federal lawsuit against Valley Center — the case settled last week for $8,000.
As West told the Ark Valley News: “It’s sad that a lot of money is going out of Valley Center that they could’ve used for drainage problems.”
Doug Bonney, chief counsel and legal director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, recommends that in addition to repealing the criminal defamation law, the state amend Section 11 of the Kansas Bill of Rights, which deals with free speech, to eliminate the word “criminal.”
Fortunately, the state now has the perfect spokesman for such a repeal effort in state Sen. Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, who was just elected attorney general.
Schmidt led an unsuccessful 2003 effort to repeal the law, and as he told The Eagle editorial board several years later: “It is still ironic that the U.S. Department of State encourages countries around the world to do away with criminal defamation laws, but here in Kansas we still have one.”