Colorado Man Charged With Felony for Craig's List Rant
It may be a blue law with origins way back in English common law, but it's still on the books in the great state of Colorado and a local prosecutor has taken the rare step of using it to charge a man who wrote some unflattering remarks about his ex-girlfriend in a Craig's list forum.
Colorado man faces criminal charge in libel case
J.P. Weichel is accused of writing defamatory comments about his former girlfriend on a Craigslist forum. Free-speech advocates are outraged.
Reporting from Fort Collins, Colo. -- Locked in a visitation dispute with his former girlfriend over their young daughter, J.P. Weichel wanted to vent, court records say.
Weichel, 40, allegedly posted comments about the woman on the Craigslist "rants and raves" forum, accusing her of child abuse and welfare fraud and making crude comments about her sex life.
The woman said the postings were defamatory. But unlike the majority of libel cases, which are tried in civil court, local authorities have taken the unusual step of charging Weichel with a crime.
Colorado is one of a dwindling number of states with a criminal law against libel. The statute dates to the 19th century and is rarely used.
But Larimer County Dist. Atty. Larry Abrahamson said Colorado's statute applied precisely to what Weichel was accused of doing.
"This is what the Legislature of the state of Colorado has determined is criminal," Abrahamson said. "We're obligated to enforce the laws in the state of Colorado."
Weichel could not be reached for comment, and his lawyer, Michael Liggett, has a policy of not speaking with reporters, an assistant in his law office said.
But several lawyers said the case should be handled in civil court. Bringing the government into the dispute, they said, is a troubling infringement on free speech.
"Being a jerk isn't necessarily grounds for felony prosecution," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
Gregory Lisby, a communications professor at Georgia State University, has tracked criminal libel prosecutions. He said the states that retained such statues -- there are 17, according to free-speech groups -- had simply not updated laws from English common law.
Criminal libel prosecutions are "a sledgehammer when a scalpel would do the same trick," Lisby said.
His research shows that criminal libel cases have dropped, but the Internet could reverse that, he said. People don't realize that scathing postings or e-mails can make them liable for defamation charges.