Utah judge refuses to dismiss case against high school student charged with criminal libel for Web site

A Utah juvenile court judge Dec. 5 denied an attorney’s attempt to dismiss a rare criminal libel case against a 17-year-old but immediately granted a request to appeal the ruling.

Milford High School student Ian Lake was charged with criminal libel in May after local officials discovered his personal Web site, which called his principal, Walter Schofield, the “town drunk” and featured other disparaging remarks about students and teachers at Milford High School. Police arrested Lake, seized his computer and held him in a local juvenile detention facility for seven days. He did not use any school facilities to create the site.

Rick Van Wagoner, Lake’s attorney, told the court Utah’s little-used criminal libel law is “unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.” The statute defines criminal libel as speech made with “ill will,” a standard Van Wagoner said is constitutionally protected free speech. In most states, libel is a civil, rather than criminal, matter.

Judge Joseph Jackson rejected the claim but said there is enough legal uncertainty to warrant an appeal to a higher court. That appeal will be filed immediately, Van Wagoner said, and Lake will not issue a plea in the case until the appellate court rules.

In separate cases, Lake faces a civil libel suit from Schofield and has filed his own civil claim against Schofield and the school district. Lake serves as his own attorney in both civil cases.

Schofield is now principal at East High School in Salt Lake City.

Lake currently lives in California with his grandparents.