Criminal law in Arizona used to include a prohibition against libel, punished with jail time or a fine. This may be surprising, since Arizona’s Constitution recognizes freedom of speech. Article 2, Section 6 states:
Freedom of speech and press
Every person may freely speak, write, and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.
The criminal libel provision began long before Statehood. The Howell Code, adopted by the First Territorial Legislature in 1864, made libel a crime. Unless the jury decided the statement true. Under the Division of “Offenses against the Public Peace and Tranquility” it stated:
Criminal libel was still the law when the Penal Code was published in 1901. It was found at Chapter X on Libel, Sections 220-229. Section 221 stated:
Every person who willfully and with malicious intent to injure another, publishes or procures to be published, any libel, is punishable by fine not exceeding five thousand dollars or imprisonment in the territorial prison not exceeding one year.
The law continued to appear after Statehood in 1912. Similar provisions to those in the 1901 Penal Code were included in the 1913 Penal Code at Sections 221-230, in the 1928 Revised Statutes of Arizona at Sections 4617-4622, the 1939 Arizona Code at Sections 43-3501 through 43-3506, the 1952 Supplement to the 1939 Arizona Code, and the first compilation of the Arizona Revised Statutes in 1956 at A.R.S. 13-351 through 13-359.
Criminal libel was part of the criminal code until it was repealed in the reorganization of the Criminal Code in 1977.
In the meantime, a civil action for libel and slander had been created. Laws 1953, Chapter 96, Section 1 created a cause of action in tort for “libel, slander, invasion of privacy, or any other tort founded upon publication”.
A similar provision is still on the books, at Arizona Revised Statutes Section 12-651, which recognizes a single cause of action for damages for “libel, slander, invasion of privacy or any other tort founded upon a single publication, exhibition or utterance…”
So, let’s be careful of what we say. We won’t wind up in jail, but we could end up in court.