ACLU Files Federal Lawsuit Claiming N.H.’s Criminal Defamation Statute Unconstitutional

Dec 18, 2018

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against New Hampshire's attorney general, claiming the state's criminal defamation statute is unconstitutional.

The suit takes up the case of Robert Frese of Exeter who was arrested after he posted an online comment referring to a law enforcement officer as a quote "dirty cop."

Under state law (RSA 644:11) it’s considered a misdemeanor to “purposely communicates to any person, orally or in writing, any information which he knows to be false and knows will tend to expose any other living person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule.”

Exeter Police later dropped the defamation charge against Frese, who has faced other criminal charges.

But lawyers with the ACLU say New Hampshire's defamation law -- and laws like it in 24 other states -- violate free speech rights under the First Amendment.

"On their face they could be used against private individuals, media outlets, anyone who's engaging in speech whether it's in print or through the internet,” says Gilles Bissonnette, Legal Director for the ACLU of New Hampshire.

Bissonnette says his group is concerned the prevalence of speech on digital platforms will lead to further prosecution of individuals who criticize the government.

The N.H. Attorney General’s office declined to comment citing pending litigation.