CO Case Shows How Internet Rants Become Criminal Charges


Locked in a visitation dispute with his former girlfriend over their young daughter, J.P. Weichel of Ft. Collins, Co., wanted to vent, says the Los Angeles Times. 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. Unlike the majority of libel cases, which are tried in civil court, 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. It dates to the 19th century and is rarely used.

Larimer County Distrist Attorney Larry Abrahamson said the law applied precisely to what Weichel was accused of doing. “Being a jerk isn’t necessarily grounds for felony prosecution,” said Mark Silverstein of the American Civil Liberties Union. 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. 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. “More and more people view the online world as a free-rant place,” Lisby said. “They think it’s par for the course, but they’re setting themselves up for lawsuits” or prosecution.


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