Published January 13, 2015
Go ahead, call state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (search) a scurvy wench, a wanton strumpet, a shameless hussy. She probably won't like it, but she doesn't want you to be prosecuted for it.
The Seattle Democrat is sponsoring a bill to repeal a 1909 Washington state law that makes "slander of a woman" a crime.
It is not that Kohl-Welles, a women's studies lecturer at the University of Washington, wants to hear women slandered. But she believes the law is a relic of a time when men put women on a pedestal and denied them basic rights.
"This is one of those old laws that is really irrelevant now," Kohl-Welles said. She added that it almost surely violates the state and federal constitutions.
The statute prohibits "false or defamatory words or language which shall injure or impair" the virtuous and chaste reputation of any female over 12. The law does say it is OK to slander (search) a "common prostitute."
The law has not been used for decades. The state Supreme Court upheld it in 1914, affirming the conviction of Mattie T. Paysse (search), who had been fined $50 for slandering another woman. Paysse's offending words did not make it into the historical record.
Kohl-Welles first introduced the bill two years ago, but it never got a vote in the Republican-controlled state Senate. With Democrats controlling both chambers this year, she thinks the bill has a strong chance of passing.
Other states have dislodged similar archaic laws from their criminal codes, though some do not go easily.
In Michigan, a man who let loose with a few profanities after falling out of a canoe was found guilty in 1999 of violating a century-old state law against cursing in front of women and children.
He was fined $75 and ordered to perform four days of community service, but an appeals court struck down the law and threw out the conviction.