House Bill 447, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee vice-chair Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City), would repeal an 1838 law that allows—nay, commands!—a husband to sue for slander any person “for words spoken falsely and maliciously about his wife for her character or reputation for chastity before or during the marriage.”
“People fought duels over such things, I’m sure,” says Robert Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who advises the legislature. Zarnoch says Rosenberg found the archaic law: “Sandy is always on the lookout for unconstitutional provisions to get rid of”—for instance, a loyalty oath dating to the 1950s that he nixed.
Rosenberg says Zarnoch brought the slander law to his attention.
The Nose noticed it nestled in a long list of upcoming hearings published by the General Assembly. Scheduled for a first hearing on Feb. 22, the notation next to the bill number reads, “Defamation - Reputation for Chastity - Repeal.”
Rosenberg says the change repeals nothing—it simply will give men the same right as women to sue for slander of their sexual reputation. “It’s meant to remove sex discrimination,” he says.
Zarnoch agrees. “You make it gender-neutral,” he says. “Allowing a husband to sue is also a relic from a long-gone past. [In the 1800s] the woman couldn’t sue in her own name. Now she can, so that provision doesn’t really serve any purpose any more.”
Laws giving special status to women may be unconstitutional, Zarnoch says, although the last federal case on the matter—some 30 years ago—decided that they weren’t. “Today I think the court would find different,” Zarnoch says. “And I think there’s a case from another jurisdiction which struck down the similar statute in Alabama.”
The Alabama law is still on the books, according to a legal search by the Nose and the National Conference of State Legislatures, which found eight states with similar “chastity” laws. In Florida, anyone “falsely and maliciously imputing to [a woman] a want of chastity, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree,” subject to imprisonment.
There is a movement among states to bring the old laws into line with modern times. An effort to repeal the chastity statute in Washington state landed in The New York Times in January—as well as on talk radio. The Times piece noted that “Florida has struck down a law forbidding unmarried women from parachuting on Sundays.”
All of which raises a question: Has Maryland’s chastity slander law been cited in modern times? “There was a recent case that I’m not sure what happened to,” Zarnoch says. “It might have just gone away.” He says he can’t recall the names of the parties and could not even find the lawyer he thought mentioned it to him. “Probably settled with a handshake, or maybe a little money,” Zarnoch supposes.
Or maybe a duel.
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