Court Finds Criminal Libel Statutes Too Vague

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

On June 19, the Washington Court of Appeals struck down Washington's criminal libel statutes as unconstitutionally vague. The ACLU-WA had submitted a friend of the court brief in the case, maintaining that the laws should be overturned because they restricted speech protected by the First Amendment.

"This ruling will help protect political speech. Criminal libel laws like these are often used to punish statements that criticize government officials," said ACLU-WA Legal Director Sarah Dunne.

The case (Parmelee v. O'Neel) centered on whether Allan Parmelee, a prisoner at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, libeled the prison's superintendent in a July 2005 letter he sent to the secretary of the Department of Corrections. The prison claimed that Parmelee had committed criminal libel by referring to the superintendent as "anti-male, a lesbian." It subsequently placed Parmelee in solitary confinement for 10 days, after which he brought suit. Parmelee claimed that his language wasn't libelous and was therefore protected by the First Amendment. The trial court had dismissed his claim.

On appeal, the ACLU-WA asserted that the criminal libel statutes were too vague and overbroad because they allowed people to be prosecuted for speaking or writing something that was true, or false but done without actual malice. The Court of Appeals agreed.

The Washington State Supreme Court (in City of Seattle v. Huff, 1989) has described a law as overbroad " . . . if it sweeps within its prohibitions constitutionally protected free speech activities." Washington's criminal libel statutes, enacted back in 1869-well before Washington even became a state-were exemplars of overbroadness. For example, one of the overturned statutes (RCW 9.58.010) defined as libel any statement that "tends" to injure reputation.

ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys Eric Stahl and Kristina Bennard of Davis Wright Tremaine and ACLU-WA staff attorney Aaron Caplan wrote the friend of the court brief.

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Court Case: 
Parmelee v. O'Neel