Utah teen awaits hearing in criminal libel case

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and a Milford High School student charged with criminal libel petitioned a state court in August to dismiss the charge on grounds that the state’s criminal libel statute is unconstitutional.

Juvenile Court Judge Joseph E. Jackson has not yet set a hearing date for the petition filed by lawyers for Beaver County teen Ian Lake. Lake was arrested in May and held in a local juvenile detention facility for seven days after local officials discovered his personal Web site, which contained derogatory comments about Milford principal Walter Schofield, several students and some of Lake’s teachers.

Lake did not use any school facilities to create the site. Still, school officials said they feared a possible “Columbine-type” incident resulting from the posting.

The site did not contain any threats of violence or references to weapons.

The petition for dismissal, filed by ACLU attorney Stephen Clark and Salt Lake City attorney Richard Van Wagoner, claims Utah’s criminal libel statute is “unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.” The Utah statute defines criminal libel as speech made with “ill will,” a standard Lake’s attorneys said could criminalize constitutionally protected free speech. Similar statutes have been struck down in other states, and in most states libel is a civil, rather than criminal, offense.

Prosecutors have not used Utah’s criminal libel law since 1987, when a former Salt Lake City attorney served 30 days in jail for making derogatory comments about a local TV journalist.

In another legal battle, Lake now faces a civil libel suit by Schofield, who has since resigned his post as principal. \nLake is now living in California with his grandparents.