Utah Supreme Court throws out criminal libel law in case involving high school student’s Web site

A 126-year-old statute that made libel acriminal act was unanimously ruled overly broad and unconstitutional Nov. 15 bythe Utah Supreme Court.

The case before the court dates back to 2000 whenIan Lake, a then 16-year-old student at Milford High School, was arrested andcharged with one count of criminal libel and one count of criminal slander afterposting derogatory comments on his Web site. Lake referred to severalstudents’ sexual history and also accused his high school principal ofbeing the “town drunk” and having an affair with a schoolsecretary.

Lake spent seven days in a juvenile detention facility. Thestate later dropped the slander charge but continued to pursue a libelconviction.

If found guilty and convicted of the Class B misdemeanor,Lake could have faced six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

After ajuvenile court refused to dismiss his case, Lake appealed the decision to thestate appellate court, which in turn sent the case to the state supremecourt.

Chief Justice Christine M. Durham, writing the majority opinion,said the statute is unconstitutional because it does not apply the “actualmalice” standard for statements concerning public officials and publicfigures, as adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Actual malice requiresthat a person accused of libel either knew that a challenged statement was falseor was reckless in verifying its accuracy.

The Court said that thecriminal statute also fails to require that the statements be false.

Thecriminal libel statute dates back to 1876 before Utah became a state. The mostrecent case was prosecuted in 1987. This was the first attempt to prosecute alibel charge for statements made on the Internet.

The state attorneygeneral’s office says it has no plans of appealing the decision. However,according to The Salt Lake Tribune a county prosecutor has filed chargesagainst Lake under a separate statute.

Several First Amendment rightsorganizations joined in the suit, including the Student Press Law Center, byfiling a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Lake.

SPLC View: Most libel claimsare civil actions for money damages, not criminal charges. But a few states,including Utah, have rarely used criminal libel statutes still on the books. Inrecent years, aggressive prosecutors have given life to these old laws but,fortunately, have met with limited success in courts. At least for now, Americanjudges seem very reluctant to throw people in jail for their speech.