High school student faces criminal libel charges for Web site remarks

UTAH — A Milford teen spent seven days in a juvenile detentioncenter and was forced to leave the state after being charged with criminallibel for statements he made on his personal Web site.

Ian Lake will face a misdemeanor charge of criminal libel for referringto his principal as “the town drunk,” naming girls at his high school as”sluts” and making derogatory remarks about the intelligence of severalteachers.

In typical civil libel suits, if an individual is libeled that personcan only recover monetary damages from the person who defamed him or her.In the rarely used criminal libel charge, the state can prosecute a personfor libel and impose jail time.

Stephen Clark, legal director for the Utah American Civil LibertiesUnion, and one of the attorneys representing Lake, said the criminal libelstatute itself is unconstitutional and therefore the case should be thrownout.

“As far as we can tell the Utah statute … is facially overbroad becauseit purports to criminalize perfectly legal constitutionally protected speech,”Clark said. “So one of our arguments will be that this prosecution can’tgo forward because it is based on a statute that is unconstitutionallyoverbroad on its face.”

Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee forFreedom of the Press, a First Amendment advocacy group, said criminal libellaws are almost never used anymore because most states find them unnecessaryand even unconstitutional.

“It is a highly unusual thing to do,” Dalglish said. “There is no reasonto [use it] because there’s a remedy-if you libel an individual that individualcan recover damages.”

The last time a journalist was charged with criminal libel in Utah was1895, but the statute was used in 1987 to send then-Salt Lake County AttorneyTed Cannon to jail for 30 days for derogatory remarks he made about a TVjournalist.

Dalglish said Utah is definitely not the norm in its use of the criminallibel statute.

“I find it curious that they would prosecute a high school student undera criminal statute,” Dalglish said. “Utah is definitely in the minority.”

Clark said he was amazed not only with the charge Lake is being prosecutedwith, but also the way in which his case was handled by police.

“I think it’s outrageous, frankly, that the prosecutor would send thesheriff over, arrest Ian, put him in jail for seven days, confiscate hiscomputer [and] bring all of the weight and machinery of the criminal justicesystem to bear on this 16-year-old kid for basically saying nothing thathigh school students don’t hear everyday in the halls. It’s absurd,” Clarksaid.

Ian’s father, David Lake, said part of the problem was that Ian feltthere was a double standard at his school and the Web site was the onlyway to get people’s attention.

“I’m getting to the point where I can really understand some of these14- and 15-year-old kids that are choosing just to go in and shoot people,”David Lake said. “Because when they get so frustrated and they’ve triedto take their issues up the way you’re supposed to take them up and theyjust get confounded and confounded like Ian was, I can understand why someof these kids don’t see any other way out. The only advantage Ian had isthat he was smart enough to see that there was another way to go afterthem.”

Ian Lake created his Web site in response to other, similar sites madeby fellow classmates that contained derogatory remarks about his friendsand girlfriend. David Lake said Ian spent a lot time researching libelstatutes to ensure he was within the parameters of the law.

“I’m not condoning what he did morally or socially even, but he didlook at all legal issues involved,” David Lake said. “He tried to constructhis Web site in such a way that even though it was trash, it was legaltrash.”

Ian was released from the juvenile detention center to live with a grandparentin California. A pretrial conference was scheduled for Aug. 1, but Clarksaid Lake’s attorneys will probably file a motion to dismiss before then.