Utah Supreme Court throws out criminal libel law

UTAH — A 126-year-old statute that made libel acriminal act was ruled overly broad and unconstitutional last week by the statesupreme court.The case before the court dates back to 2000 when IanLake, 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 the schoolsecretary.Lake spent seven days in a juvenile detention facility. Thestate later dropped the slander charge but continued to pursue a libelconviction.Most libel claims are civil actions for damages, not criminalcharges. But a few states, including Utah, have rarely used criminal libelstatutes on the books.If found guilty and convicted of the Class Bmisdemeanor libel law, Lake could have faced six months in jail and a $1,000fine. After juvenile court refused to dismiss his case, Lake appealedthe decision to the state appellate court, which in turn sent the case to thestate supreme court.Chief Justice Christine M. Durham, writingthe majority opinion, said the statute is unconstitutional because it doesnot apply the “actual malice” standard for statements concerningpublic officials and public figures, as adopted by the U.S.Supreme.Actual malice requires the person accused of libel either knewthe challenged statement was false or was reckless in verifying its accuracy.The U.S. Supreme Court adopted the actual malice standard for public officialsin the 1964 case, New York Times v. Sullivan, and three years laterextended it to include public figures.The Court said that the criminalstatute also fails to require that the statements be false.The criminallibel statute dates back to 1876 before Utah became a state. The most recentcase was prosecuted in 1987. This was the first attempt to prosecute a libelcharge 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 Tribunea county prosecutor has filed criminal defamation charges under a separate legalargument.Several First Amendment rights organizations joined in thesuit, including the Student Press Law Center, by filing a friend of the courtbrief in support of Lake.

I.M.L. v. State, 2002 WL 31528479 (Utah Nov. 15, 2002)

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