What Is the Difference Between Civil Libel and Criminal Libel?

America’s criminal and civil court systems operate entirely separate from one another: the criminal justice system serves to convict people of crimes and penalize them with sentences, such as fines and jail time, whereas the purpose of the civil justice system is to provide financial recovery to individuals and families who suffer harms because of someone else’s negligence or intent to harm. Libel cases may involve both the criminal and civil courts in Georgia depending on the circumstances.


The definition of libel is “written defamation,” or a written false statement about someone that damages his or her reputation. Spoken defamation is “slander.” Defaming someone with the written word can be incredibly damaging to that person’s life, resulting in harms such as lost relationships, respect, and business. Many people think of libel as a civil wrongdoing, but it is also against the law in some states. Georgia used to be one such state until legislation quietly decriminalized libel in 2015.

In 1982, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the criminal libel law unconstitutional in Williamson v. Georgia. This case involved an alleged “breach of the peace” charge against the defendant. An appeal resulted in the judgment getting reversed and the General Assembly limiting the breach of peace provision of the opprobrious language statute to “fighting words” only. Still, the statute remained effective, but not used often. It is believed the criminal libel statute vanished mostly because state prosecutors were using it to keep complaints against the government quiet.

For example, one journalist spent two nights in jail for a criminal defamation charge after writing something political. Free speech laws make criminal defamation laws widely unconstitutional. Now that Georgia lawmakers have officially repealed the law that criminalized libel, victims’ only course of action is a civil claim. The state can no longer place individuals under arrest for libel charges – these claims are solely in the hands of the Georgia civil courts.


One couple discovered the implications of Georgia’s recently repealed laws during what started as a Facebook spat. After Anne King complained about her ex-husband (a police officer) failing to bring medicine to her house for her and her sick children on Facebook, police arrested King and her friend who commented on the post for “criminal defamation of character.” King was allegedly jailed for about four hours before leaving on a $1,000 bond.

During the hearing, Judge Ralph Todd evidently told the women that they could have had the same discussion verbally and it would not have been against the law, but since she published it for the public to see, it was illegal. The case then went to a state judge who dismissed the charges, saying he didn’t know why King and her friend were in court to begin with. Now King is filing a civil lawsuit against her ex-husband and his colleague for violating her constitutional rights.


Due to the repeal of House Bill 252 in Georgia, it is no longer against the law to verbally defame someone. The freedom of speech defense will also come into play in many written defamation criminal cases, as it did in the King case. That does not mean, however, that libel comes completely without consequences. Libel can – and likely will – result in a civil lawsuit against the alleged perpetrator.

The death of Georgia’s criminal libel law can be good news for defendants, but it doesn’t necessarily mean getting off scot-free. A civil libel case could result in the courts ordering the defendant to pay for the plaintiff’s damages, including financial losses and emotional distress. The compensation for a libel case could equal thousands of dollars if the victim suffered serious ramifications from the falsehoods. If you have questions about a criminal libel or slander case, contact a qualified defense attorney for assistance. The criminal defense lawyers at Jarrett Maillet J.D., P.C. have years of experience to help you make the most informed legal decisions possible.