A Colorado man accused of posting comments about his ex-girlfriend on the Web site Craigslist has been charged under a rarely used criminal libel law.
Colorado's criminal libel law, passed in 1963, bans statements "tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead" or that "impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation or expose the natural defects of one who is alive."
Although similar laws, which trace their roots back to at least the 15th century, are on the books in at least 16 states, they are rarely used and many others have been struck down as unconstitutional. A study by the Media Law Resource Center found 77 reported actual or threatened criminal libel prosecutions between 1965 and 2002, although the actual number is likely higher.
But observers say there has been a rise in criminal libel cases since late 1990s, many of them tied to the easy access and false sense of anonymity of the Internet. In 2008, at least 13 such cases have been brought, in such states as Wisconsin, Colorado, Minnesota, Florida, Louisiana, Montana and Oklahoma, according to the center.
"Many people convince themselves it's anonymous," said Sandra Baron, the director of the Media Law Resource Center, who said criminal libel laws should be abolished. "And, of course, the reach of the Internet is such that once it's out there, it's so widespread and so provocative that it inspires people to want to take action to stop it."
The case against Weichel began when his former lover reported postings about her to the police. Court records cited by The Associated Press say one Web post allegedly written by Weichel suggested the woman traded sexual acts for legal services from her attorney.
When confronted by detectives, Weichel allegedly said he was "just venting," according to the AP.
Weichel, who has not yet entered a plea in the case, could not be immediately reached for comment. His lawyer declined to comment. He was charged in October, and a court hearing is scheduled for later this month. Web sites like Craigslist are generally not legally liable for comments posted by their users.
Most libel cases are civil lawsuits and criminal charges for false statements are rare.
There have been several controversial criminal libel prosecutions in the past several years. A college student in Colorado was investigated under the law in 2004 for publishing a satirical online journal that was critical of the University of Northern Colorado. Prosecutors eventually declined to file charges.
The Web site featured a photograph of a professor, altered to look like Kiss guitarist Gene Simmons, with a caption describing the person in the photograph as a former Kiss roadie who made a fortune by riding "the tech bubble of the nineties like a $20 whore."
A Web site in Tulsa, Okla., that features comments criticizing local politicians has been subpoenaed for the names of its anonymous posters in a criminal libel investigation, according to local news reports. A New Mexico man was convicted in 2005 of criminal libel after he carried a picket sign in front of the local police department that called an officer a "liar" and "dirty cop."
First Amendment advocates warn that the prosecutions may stifle free speech. Criminal libel laws have their origins in the Star Chamber, which prosecuted critics of the British crown.
"Criminal libel is just an anachronism," said Thomas Kelly, a First Amendment lawyer in Denver. "Using the criminal law to punish speech is just such an ugly display of the power of the state that I think most law enforcement officers would tell someone with a complaint like that to file a civil action."
The Associated Press contributed to this article