Enquirer Herald

Guest view: Complaint proposal will stifle free speech

Groundless complaints against judges and magistrates undoubtedly can be an annoyance for them. But a bill designed to deter such complaints amounts to using a sledgehammer to kill a fly.

More than 280 complaints a year have been filed by residents against judges and magistrates for the past three fiscal years. But more than 80 percent of those complaints ultimately are dismissed, according to judicial records.

Screening and evaluating each of those complaints requires considerable time and effort. And the process can be an inconvenience for judges.

But a bill that passed the S.C. House and is being considered in the S.C. Senate could send people who file formal complaints against a state judge behind bars for up to a year. Under the bill’s provisions, anyone who willfully files a groundless complaint against a judge could be convicted of a misdemeanor and face up to a year in jail and a fine of $1,000.

And if officials really want to punish someone who files a groundless complaint against a judge, under this bill they also could assess a civil penalty against the person of up to $1,000.

Opponents say the punishment could have a chilling effect on the public’s right to file such complaints. That is an understatement; a law that severe could shut down even legitimate complaints.

The free speech standards set 50 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court allow greater latitude regarding statements about public figures, said South Carolina Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers. Americans don’t have to be 100 percent correct when they make statements about public officials, including judges.

In addition, many Americans are incapable of fully evaluating the legitimacy of their own complaints and deciding whether they are groundless under the law. The effect of this bill would go beyond encouraging restraint on the part of those making the complaints to compelling them to remain silent.

While unfounded complaints are a nuisance, judges must be held accountable for their actions. We think the current screening process for complaints accomplishes that in an open and transparent way, and any effort to discourage complaints with threats of long jail sentences and heavy fines would be counterproductive.

Some lawmakers, including some who support the bill, say they are doubtful the provisions that criminalize residents’ complaints against a judge will be retained in the final version of the bill. We hope they’re right.

From The Herald