Last spring, seven Kalispell police officers teamed up with two Flathead County sheriff’s deputies to arrest Brad Zimmerman at his home in Hungry Horse. You’d figure Zimmerman must be a pretty dangerous character to bring down so much heat. But you’d be wrong. Flathead authorities arrested him for writing a distorted account of a Kalispell arrest on the Internet.
Months before, Zimmerman had posted a story on Craigslist about two men who got collared for standing near a busy downtown intersection in Kalispell waving a sign that read “Free Dick Rides.”
According to Zimmerman’s post, the arresting officer “grabbed the boy by his hair. He yanked the boy down, twisted him sideways, then grabbed his arm and cuffed him. He then kicked the boy in his leg twice…” It wasn’t true, but it sure sounded juicy.
When the phalanx of law officers caught up with Zimmerman in March, they charged him with criminal defamation. Initially, Zimmerman’s public defender planned to fight the case on constitutional grounds.
In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiff in a defamation case must prove the accused acted with “actual malice”—in other words, with intent to harm. But Montana’s criminal defamation law does not include a malice clause, an omission that bothers free speech advocates.
The director of the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Scott Crichton, told the Indy his organization had an inclination to challenge Montana’s criminal defamation law as well. Unfortunately, Zimmerman was not the ideal poster boy.
Video footage from a police car at the scene described in Zimmerman’s Internet posting proved he had concocted the story. On top of that, he was later arrested on unrelated charges of assault.
Zimmerman has now signed an agreement with the city of Kalispell, obliging the city to dismiss the defamation charges in six months, provided he avoids additional trouble with the law during that time. He has also been required to post a retraction on Craigslist.
So Montana’s potentially unconstitutional criminal defamation law will remain unchallenged.
But even worse, local law enforcement’s embarrassing abuse of authority—prosecuting a garden-variety moron for making up unflattering stories about them—will also remain unchallenged.