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Penalty for Libel: Banishment?

Because tribal reservations have sovereignty over many of their own affairs, their laws sometimes veer away from the common law most of us are accustomed to. But tribal leaders at the Rocky Boy's Reservation in northern Montana apparently went too far astray from accepted notions of fairness when they adopted an anti-defamation ordinance Feb. 7 that allowed them to seize a defamer's personal property and permanently banish the offender from the reservation. A tribal member found to have slandered another could face loss of home and property, relinquishment of tribal membership, and status as a "nonentity with no civil rights."

Some reservation members were none too happy with the ordinance, which was enacted in the wake of letters disparaging tribal council members and their families. But unhappiness turned to anger when tribal police arrested a 70-year-old woman for allegedly circulating a defamatory letter about the tribe's leaders after she was unable to get financial help to fix her roof. "No place else in the United States could this happen, but on the reservation," said another woman who was questioned by police under the defamation ordinance.

Members of the tribe revolted. They organized a petition drive and were successful in convincing the tribal council to repeal the ordinance in a unanimous vote. Recounting the story in the Helena Independent Record, columnist Jodi Rave says it demonstrates that "some tribal leaders are willing to gamble with -- and ignore -- citizen rights." Of course, it also demonstrates the power of citizens to fight back and win.

[Hat tip to Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.]

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on April 3, 2008 at 12:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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