Supreme Court Declines Case of Man Arrested for Criticizing Police

Robert Frese's case highlights the clash between First Amendment rights and criminal defamation laws. Photo © Designer491 | Dreamstime.com

The U.S. Supreme Court declined on Monday to review a case concerning the criminal prosecution of defamation of public officials.

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The case involved Robert Frese, an Exeter, New Hampshire resident, charged after alleging on a local newspaper’s Facebook page that the town’s police chief had protected a “dirty cop.”

Frese’s post from May 2018 led to his arrest after an Exeter police detective determined he had violated New Hampshire’s criminal defamation statute.

This law criminalizes the act of knowingly communicating false information that could expose another person to public contempt or ridicule.

However, the charges against Frese were dropped after the New Hampshire Department of Justice advised that no evidence suggests Frese knowingly defamed the police chief. In fact, it was believed that Frese genuinely held the views he expressed.

The case highlighted the broader issue of whether the First Amendment protects citizens from criminal punishment for criticizing public officials.

Frese’s legal team argued that while civil penalties for defamation are one thing, allowing government officials to imprison their critics based on the perceived veracity of their claims is another matter entirely.

The ACLU commented on the case, “Criminal defamation laws present this danger in its starkest form. As Frese’s case illustrates, such laws invite public officials to punish those who criticize how they do their jobs—a freedom central to representative self- government.”

The concept of criminal defamation has deep historical roots.

Originating in England’s Court of the Star Chamber in the early 17th century, the doctrine of seditious libel made it a crime to defame the government and its officials.

The U.S. saw its own version of this with the Sedition Act of 1798, passed during John Adams’ presidency. This act led to numerous prosecutions against those critical of the government, though it expired a few years later under Thomas Jefferson’s leadership.

However, even Jefferson encouraged state-level criminal libel prosecutions against his detractors.

By the mid-20th century, such laws were seen mainly as outdated.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to review Frese’s case leaves many questions about the modern applicability of these laws unanswered.

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