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Joseph Harry Weston v. State of Arkansas dealt with two criminal cases that reached the Arkansas Supreme Court in the 1970s, the second of which led the court to declare the state’s old criminal-libel law unconstitutional.
Joseph Harry Weston was the owner and editor of a tiny tabloid newspaper in Cave City (Sharp County) called the Sharp Citizen, which he printed off and on from 1972 until 1978. The paper, which was composed on typewritten stationery with hand-drawn headlines, reveled in strongly opinionated articles that alleged corruption and other scandalous behavior by public officials, businessmen, and common citizens, including Weston’s rural neighbors. The editor’s crusades got national attention but put him into almost perpetual conflict with law-enforcement officials, prosecutors, and the courts. He twice sought the Republican nomination for governor, in 1974 and 1976, losing badly both times.
The language of the criminal-libel law dated to the original statute in 1838, which defined libel as an expression that blackened the memory of a dead person or impeached “the honesty, integrity, veracity, virtue or reputation” or publicized “the natural defects of one who is living and thereby expose him to public hatred, contempt and ridicule.” A person convicted of libel could be fined $3,000 and imprisoned for three years.
Statutes that allowed the jailing of people for libelous or slanderous expressions were common among the states. The original purpose seemed to be to punish those who committed sedition—in other words, encouraged disobedience or insurrection against the government—or to prevent violence such as duels. After the U.S. Supreme Court created broad exceptions to libel in two cases in 1964, criminal-libel laws were rarely used until the beginning of the twenty-first century, when some jurisdictions turned to their criminal laws again to punish flagrant abuses on the Internet.
Weston’s first run-in with the law followed his publication in 1973 of an article ridiculing his next-door neighbor and the county judge of Sharp County for trying to have him arrested and for running advertisements in other newspapers against him. He said they would have trouble arresting him because his neighbor, “Junior Dickey,” was too illiterate to swear out a warrant, and the money it would take to buy the ads was “greater than Junior Dickey could lay his hands on, even if he ran his still (the one he inherited from his father) every night for a month.” Dickey said the article blackened the name of his dead father and libeled him by accusing him of moonshining, which was illegal. Ted Boswell of Bryant (Saline County), who had run for governor in 1968 and for the U.S. Senate in 1972, represented Weston.
Circuit Judge Henry M. Britt, who heard the case, dismissed the charges because he said the statute violated the standards set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan and Garrison v. Louisiana by not requiring proof of actual malice by a newspaper or providing for truth as a defense. But the Arkansas Supreme Court concluded that the Sullivan decision did not invalidate criminal-libel laws and returned the case for trial. Weston was found guilty in 1974. During the paper’s short life, Weston was charged with two other counts of criminal libel in Sharp County and four in Clay County.
In 1975, Weston, who was represented by Little Rock (Pulaski County) attorneys W. Dent Gitchel and Robert Cearley, appealed his conviction and sentence—a $4,000 fine and three months in prison—in Clay County Circuit Court. The Citizen had carried a story that Sheriff Liddell Jones was involved in drug trafficking, and it suggested that he might have been complicit in the murder of a Clay County man. This time, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction and held the statute unconstitutional. The court said the law failed to provide for truth as a defense and permitted the imprisonment of people without proof that they had published erroneous statements with malice and a reckless disregard for the truth. The court’s opinion, written by a special justice, Leroy Autrey, said it had no authority to insert conditions into the statute that were not there in order to make it constitutional, as the state suggested it could do.
The decision effectively killed the criminal-libel statute, although Weston asked the prosecutor of Pulaski County to use it to punish a Republican state senator from Benton County for remarks that he had made against Weston and his paper. The legislature formally repealed the law in 2005.
Weston’s legal troubles did not end. In 1979, the state Supreme Court refused the editor’s request that it quash an indictment against him by a grand jury in Independence County. He was indicted for perjury before the grand jury, which was investigating the newspaper’s claims that a prostitution ring flourished in Batesville (Independence County) under the protection of law-enforcement officials.
Representing himself, Weston then brought a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, claiming that a number of public officials in Arkansas—including all the justices of the state Supreme Court, the attorney general, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Arkansas, as well as grand jury members, judges, prosecutors, and lawyers in northeastern Arkansas—had conspired to violate his civil rights and shut down his newspaper. The district court and the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1982 rejected his claims. Weston appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it did not accept the case.
Weston had ceased to publish his paper several years earlier. He died on November 15, 1983.
For additional information:“Editor Joseph Harry Weston, 72, Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, November 17, 1983, p. 18A.
Hall, Holly K. “The Sharp Citizen: Applying the Lessons Learned from Joseph Weston to the Criminal Libel Outlook of the Future.” Communication Law Review 12 (2012): 29–39. Online at http://www.commlawreview.org/Archives/CLRV12I1/CLRv12i1_The_Sharp_Citizen_Hall.pdf (accessed January 15, 2015).
Joseph H. Weston v. Ann Bachman, et al., 682 F. 2d 202 (1982).
Joseph H. Weston v. State of Arkansas, 576 S.W.2d 705 (1979).
Pruitt, Lisa R. “The Law of Defamation: An Arkansas Primer.” Arkansas Law Review 42.4 (1989): 915–1026.
State of Arkansas v. Joseph H. Weston, 501 S.W.2d 622 (1973).
State of Arkansas v. Joseph H. Weston, 528 S.W.2d 412 (1975).
Ernest Dumas Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 3/16/2016
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