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Free speech is no criminal matter

Nevada Appeal editorial board

No matter how sharp or harsh are words of criticism, they shouldn’t get a person arrested. Yet that’s the consequence facing a Carson City woman who is a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe after she criticized the tribe’s water resources coordinator over work to rebuild Weber Dam.

Pat Hicks’ comments were both sharp and harsh in an e-mail aimed at generating support for a recall effort against two tribal council members. Whether they were defamatory is an issue that can properly be settled in court – but in a civil court, where the definitions for defamation, libel and slander have a long and well-tested history.

Hicks, however, because of a law in the tribal legal code against knowingly and maliciously disseminating false information about a person, faces a criminal court hearing and the possibility of up to six months in jail if convicted.

The case appears to be a prime example how criminal penalties can weaken the foundations of democracy, which depend on freedom of speech as a way to foster broad discussion of controversial issues and allow people to unearth the truth for themselves.

The Weber Dam repair project is a controversial one for tribal members, and certainly one open for debate as it is vital to the future of the tribe and involves millions of federal dollars.

Whether Hicks’ criticism of the water resources coordinator, Elveda Martinez, is justified is also a topic worthy of debate. In a civil lawsuit, issues would be decided such as whether Martinez can be considered a public figure, who are open to far more criticism than private individuals, and how much harm the alleged defamation might have done to her character.

With the threat of jail time, however, comes a chilling effect on any kind of criticism of tribal administrators. People are discouraged from saying anything at all, and that’s not healthy for any form of government.

We hope this case will lead to the law being removed from the tribe’s books. Nobody likes to be criticized, but silence on issues of public concern would do a far greater harm.