A newly introduced Internet Libel Act in the N.C. Senate — SB 46 — would make it a potential civil and criminal (Class 2 misdemeanor) offense for libelous or slanderous material to originate in the state or be received or viewed in the state via the Internet. The bill, which has been referred to the Judiciary Committee, was filed by WNC’s Sen. Steve Goss, an ordained Baptist minister from Boone who is serving his second term in the General Assembly.
The bill was immediately and “strongly” opposed by the North Carolina Press Association, according to Executive Director Beth Grace, who told Xpress by e-mail: “This flies in the face of 200 years of free speech tradition in this state. We cannot and should not penalize citizens just for blogging or e-mailing something the government doesn’t like.” Meanwhile, The News & Observer’s political “Under the Dome” blog reported that Goss — despite the bill’s text — said inclusion of criminal penalties was “an oversight.” His quoted rationale in filing the bill: “We need to make sure that we’re keeping up with technology,” he said. “I believe these blogs are getting out of control.”
The Media Law Resource Center defines libel and slander as “legal claims for false statements of fact about a person that are printed, broadcast, spoken or otherwise communicated to others.” Its Web site notes that these are normally civil claims, with only a “handful of states” recognizing an action for criminal defamation. “Prosecutions are rare, especially against the media.” (MLRC publishes a 50-state survey of media and privacy law.)
North Carolina, however, happens to be one of the states that holds a criminal statute for libel (GS 14-47), applicable to print media. The statute, which has been on the books in some form since 1901, states: “If any person shall state, deliver or transmit by any means whatever, to the manager, editor, publisher or reporter of any newspaper or periodical for publication therein any false and libelous statement concerning any person or corporation, and thereby secure the publication of the same, he shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”
Goss’ bill does offer an easy out to avoid either criminal or civil penalty — and one that might save the courts some trouble. It states that before any civil or criminal action is brought, “the plaintiff or prosecutor shall first give the person alleged to be responsible for communicating the libelous or slanderous material at least five days to correct the libelous or slanderous material.”
— Nelda Holder, associate editor