State won’t appeal constitutionality of "defaming a police officer" statute
August 13, 2002
The Nevada Attorney General’s Office has decided not to try to resurrect the state law making it a crime to “defame a police officer.”
U.S. District Judge David Hagen ruled that law unconstitutional in June, saying it violated the First Amendment.
Robert Eakins sued the city of Reno after he was charged with knowingly filing false allegations of misconduct against a police officer. Hagen, in an 11-page order, quoted the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Times v. Sullivan that there is “a 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.”
Hagen said he wasn’t convinced police officers must have special protections from allegations of misconduct.
Solicitor General Tony Clark said it was the judgment of the attorney general’s staff that the law, as currently written, “would not stand constitutional muster.”
“We did our duty,” he said. “We stood up for it at the trial court level. But we didn’t feel we could prevail at the Ninth Circuit.
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“There’s no point throwing good money after bad,” he said.
They tried to defend the law by arguing police need protection from allegations of misconduct which lower public confidence in police, increasing the chances they will be subjected to violence.
“Defendant has made no showing that there was a serious problem of false allegations of police misconduct leading to violence against police officers,” the judge ruled.
He agreed with lawyers for Eakins that public discourse on police conduct is necessary and that the law could have a chilling effect on citizens making valid complaints.
Gary Wolf, business agent for the Nevada Highway Patrol Association, said that group is looking at the issue “to see if there is an alternative solution.”
“We’ve always felt that if the law was used properly, there should be no problems with it,” he said. “In this case, the judge didn’t think it was and that’s how you lose laws.”
He said the law was originally designed to protect police officers from malicious lies that damage their reputation because, unlike most citizens, they are considered public figures, which limits their ability to sue for libel or slander.