Jurors found publisher David W. Carson and editor Ed Powers of The New Observer, as well as Observer Publications Inc., guilty on seven counts of criminal defamation.
According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a U.S.-based press freedom organization, the case stems from a November 2000 article in which the paper alleged that Carol Marinovich, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kansas, and her husband, Wyandotte County District Court judge Ernest Johnson, did not live in Wyandotte County but in an affluent county nearby.
By law, the mayor and the judge are required to live in the county where they hold public office.
Though special prosecutor David Farris has not decided whether to seek jail terms, Carson and Powers could be fined and jailed for up to one year. Defense attorney Mark Birmingham announced he would ask the judge to set aside the verdict or he would file an appeal, The Associated Press reported. A hearing is scheduled for August 26.
“These criminal defamation charges defy both U.S. and international standards and set a terrible precedent for the rest of world,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “While journalists must be responsible for their reporting, sending Carson and Powers to jail for what they wrote would be an egregious violation of press freedom.”
CPJ works to eliminate criminal defamation
As part of its campaign to eliminate criminal defamation statutes from legal systems in North and South America, CPJ has expressed concern to U.S. officials that at least 19 states and the District of Columbia still have laws on the books that classify libel as a criminal, and not just a civil, offense.
In CPJ’s view, increasingly supported by international law, a civil forum can provide adequate redress for any grievance that stems from a publication.
“Criminal defamation statutes should be purged from the books in the United States to set an example for countries where journalists are routinely jailed because of what they write,” said CPJ’s Cooper.