Many nations have criminal penalties for defamation in some situations, and different conditions for determining whether an offense has occurred. ARTICLE 19, a British free expression advocacy group, has published global maps charting the existence of criminal defamation law across the globe, as well as showing countries that have special protections for political leaders or functionaries of the state.
There can be regional statutes that may differ from the national norm. For example, in the United States, defamation is generally limited to the living. However, there are 7 states (Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah) that have criminal statutes regarding defamation of the dead.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has also published a detailed database on criminal and civil defamation provisions in 55 countries, including all European countries, all member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the United States and Canada.
In a 2012 ruling on a complaint filed by a broadcaster who had been imprisoned for violating Philippine libel law, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights held that the criminalization of libel without provision of a public figure doctrine – as in Philippine criminal law – violates freedom of expression and is inconsistent with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Early cases of criminal defamation
Questions of group libel have been appearing in common law for hundreds of years. One of the earliest known cases of a defendant being tried for defamation of a group was the case of Rex v. Orme and Nutt (1700). In this case, the jury found that the defendant was guilty of libeling several subjects, though they did not specifically identify who these subjects were. A report of the case told that the jury believed that "where a writing … inveighs against mankind in general, or against a particular order of men, as for instance, men of the gown, this is no libel, but it must descend to particulars and individuals to make it libel." This jury believed that only individuals who believed they were specifically defamed had a claim to a libel case. Since the jury was unable to identify the exact people who were being defamed, there was no cause to identify the statements were a libel.
Another early English group libel which has been frequently cited is King v. Osborne (1732). In this case, the defendant was on trial "for printing a libel reflecting upon the Portuguese Jews." The printing in question claimed that Jews who had arrived in London from Portugal burned a Jewish woman to death when she had a child with a Christian man, and that this act was common. Following Osborne's anti-Semitic publication, several Jews were attacked. Initially, the judge seemed to believe the court could do nothing since no individual was singled out by Osborne's writings. However, the court concluded that "since the publication implied the act was one Jews frequently did, the whole community of Jews was defamed." Though various reports of this case give differing accounts of the crime, this report clearly shows a ruling based on group libel. Since laws restricting libel were accepted at this time because of its tendency to lead to a breach of peace, group libel laws were justified because they showed potential for an equal or perhaps greater risk of violence. For this reason, group libel cases are criminal even though most libel cases are civil torts.
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- Template:Dead linkTemplate:Dead linkARTICLE 19 statements Template:Webarchive on criminalized defamation
- Idaho Code § 18-4801 Template:Webarchive, Louisiana Revised Statute § 14:47 Template:Webarchive, Nevada Revised Statutes § 200.510, and No Place in the Law: The Ignominy of Criminal Libel in American Jurisprudence by Gregory C. Lisby, 9 Comm. L. & Pol'y 433 footnote 386.
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- Rex v. Orme and Nutt, 1700
- King v. Osborne, 1732
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