Court to decide on criminal defamation

UTAH — The state supreme court agreed to hear arguments on the\nconstitutionality of the state’s criminal libel law in the case\nof a student arrested for calling his high school principal a\n"town drunk" on an off-campus Web site.

Lawyers for Ian Lake, formerly a student at Milford High School,\nare asking the court to throw out the law, saying it is unconstitutionally\noverbroad. They cite laws similar to Utah’s that have been struck\ndown in other states and argue that Utah’s law does not follow\nthe U.S. Supreme Court’s standards for libel established in the\n1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan.

"This case involves an extraordinary, if not unprecedented,\neffort to bring the full weight of criminal law to bear on a 16-year-old\nhigh school student for his part in a war of words," attorney\nRichard Van Wagoner said in a petition to dismiss the charges\nagainst Lake. "On its face, Utah’s criminal libel statute\nis unconstitutional."

Lake was arrested and detained for seven days last year after\npolice discovered his Web site, on which he called Milford principal\nWalter Schofield an alcoholic and accused him of having an affair\nwith a secretary. Lake and Schofield agreed to drop civil lawsuits\nagainst each other, but prosecutors are continuing to push for\nLake’s conviction on misdemeanor charges of criminal libel.

Libel disputes are primarily litigated with civil suits brought\nby the defamed individual against the author or publisher of the\nstatement. Very few people are charged by prosecutors with criminal\nlibel, and many states’ laws have been thrown out by the courts.

In the Sullivan case, the Court ruled that defamed persons\nmust prove that the author knowingly made a false statement or\nhad a reckless disregard for the truth, known as the "actual\nmalice" standard. The Court later applied the standard to\ncriminal libel.

A friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Student Press Law\nCenter and other First Amendment groups argues that Utah’s statute\ngoes beyond the Sullivan standard.

"Virtually every other court to examine this issue has\nreached the same conclusion: that a criminal libel statute which\nfails to provide an explicit actual malice standard is unconstitutional,"\nthe brief says.

Oral arguments before the court are expected this year.