New Hampshire Police Arrested a Man for Being Mean to Them on the Internet

Should it be a crime to call public officials corrupt? Yes, according to the police in Exeter, New Hampshire. Earlier this year, they arrested a local man for writing a comment on a news website accusing Police Chief William Shupe of covering for a corrupt officer.

Robert Frese was accused of violating New Hampshire’s criminal defamation law, which makes it a misdemeanor to intentionally and falsely disparage another person. New Hampshire’s law — and others like it in 23 other states around the country — literally make it a crime to say mean things about people.

These laws have no place in modern American democracy. That’s why we filed a lawsuit Tuesday in New Hampshire federal court arguing that criminal defamation laws violate the First Amendment.

Criminal Defamation in the United States

Frese was arrested after he posted comments to a Seacoast Online article about a retiring police officer. Frese had a number of issues with the officer and accused him of misconduct. He also wrote that Chief Shupe “covered up for this dirty cop.” A few weeks later, the Exeter police filed a criminal complaint against Frese. The complaint said that Frese “purposely communicated on a public website, in writing, information which he knows to be false and knows will tend to expose another person to public contempt, by posting that Chief Shupe covered up for a dirty cop.” The police ultimately dropped the charges — after the ACLU of New Hampshire spoke out against Frese’s prosecution.

There’s a long history of law enforcement officials using defamation laws to silence their critics. Under English common law, the crime of “seditious libel” prohibited criticism of the government because it could lead to insurrection. And in the Sedition Act of 1798, Congress criminalized false statements criticizing the federal government.

But, as the Supreme Court recognized in a landmark 1964 decision, New York Times Company v. Sullivan, the First Amendment was meant to repudiate the whole notion of seditious libel. In that case, an Alabama police commissioner sued The New York Times for defamation after it published an advertisement describing police department actions against civil rights protesters.

In its decision upholding the newspaper’s First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court recognized the “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

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Of course, freedom of speech does not give anyone the absolute right to spread malicious lies about their fellow citizens. That’s why our laws allow people who have been slandered to file civil lawsuits for money damages.

Time has shown that civil lawsuits are fully capable of addressing the harms caused by defamation, which is why criminal defamation prosecutions became increasingly rare over the course of the 20th century. But in states that still have criminal defamation laws on the books, public officials still use them to prosecute their critics.

For example: The editor and publisher of a small newspaper in Kansas were convicted of criminal defamation after the paper published an article suggesting that the mayor lived in another county and was therefore ineligible for public office. A Massachusetts woman was convicted of criminal defamation in New Hampshire after she claimed that a coffee shop’s employees spit in police officers’ coffee. And a Kansas man was charged with criminal defamation after he posted a yard sign criticizing his local government’s inaction on a water drainage problem; the lawsuit was dropped after the ACLU got involved.

CLICK HERE FOR AN INTERACTIVE MAP OF STATE CRIMINAL DEFAMATION LAWS

It’s important to note that a disproportionate number of criminal defamation convictions have involved politicians and law enforcement officials. This is no coincidence. Whenever people in power are given a tool to punish critics, you can bet they’ll be sorely tempted to use it. As a result, criminal defamation laws are often used to punish political speech lying at the heart of the First Amendment, just like the old seditious libel laws.

The Exeter Police Department’s criminal complaint against Frese is a textbook example of the use and abuse of criminal defamation laws. Someone who has had a history of trouble with the police went to the internet to air his grievances, and the police department itself decided to prosecute him

This is absurd, and it’s a telling reminder of what happens when law enforcement is given the power to crack down on expression. It’s time we toss criminal defamation laws into the dustbin of history, where they belong.

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Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

Never under estimate the power of bad mouthing someone.

Anonymous

What thick irony! Covert defamation and blacklisting tactics - like Cointelpro - likely originated at the local police level and were adopted at the federal police level. This is where a local officer may covertly surveil simply someone they dislike them (a high school classmate, neighbor, unpopular local church, the boy dating his daughter, etc). - not based on legitimate probable cause of any past crime - as the 4th Amendment requires. Police officers know they can defame someone as long as they aren’t under oath in front of a judge. If they never confront that person they can say anything they please without legal risk. It’s a very successful way to destroy people they dislike. What’s so genuinely evil about this police tactic is it gradually defames innocent people over years and decades. By the time you figure it out, the officers probably can’t even trace the defamation back to the originating police officer. Many FBI agents (and other agencies) started out as local and state police officers and apparently have infected some federal agencies as well. During the Civil Rights movement, the FBI attempted to defame Baptist ministers. Since there was no real probable cause of a real past crime, they illegally defamed some Christian ministers. One tactic to embarrass innocent Americans was for female FBI agents to call up the wives of their targets (masquerading as mistrisses) to break up marriages and families. The most famous target was the Christian minister - Martin Luther King, Jr - and his “crime” was supporting voting rights for African-Americans. Apparently the FBI Director back then thought that the 1st Amendment required a “sainthood test” in order to exercise one’s rights. Legally speaking, the FBI committed several (premeditated) felony crimes to defame and punish perfectly legal 1st Amendment exercises. Maybe some (not all) police chiefs and federal agency heads should prohibit their subordinates from practicing a far worse form of defamation? What irony!

Anonymous

Anonymous, the article isn’t talking about the police saying things, it’s the private citizen who was charged because of what he said. So, I can say anything I want and accuse you of wrong doing without proof, on speculation and you can’t do anything about it?

Anonymous

Read what the first anon says

Anonymous

Wow, what corrupt police chief.

Anonymous

Chief Shoupe is an honorable man. Freeze violated the law, and was charged as such! Go after the lawmakers, not the police for doing their job to uphold the law!

Anonymous

Riiiiight. Family member? Spouse? Lackey? I seriously doubt this was posted by an impartial party. Take your bootlicking elsewhere you cuck.

Anonymous

AN honorable man?!?!? BUhahahahahahahaha HAHAHAHAHAAHA

Anonymous

Kind of proves how corrupt the dude was, some cops ruin it for the rest doing bum shit like this.

Michael Tarbert

Take an Hour and research these Cases....They get Crazier and Crazier......Like a Crime Soap Opera

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