Former Utah high school student faces new charges for criminal defamation; journalism groups cry foul

A former high school student who eluded criminal libel last monthfor comments he made on his Web site now is facing a criminal defamation charge.

Beaver County prosecutors served Ian Lake, 19, with a subpoena on Dec. 9ordering him to appear for arraignment in January. Lake faces up to six monthsin jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted of the charge.

The charge wasbrought based on actions Lake took while attending Milford High School. In 2000he created a Web site where he claimed his principal was the “towndrunk” and was having an affair with the school’s secretary. He alsolisted his classmate’s sexual histories on the site.

A civildefamation action brought against Lake by the principal wasresolved.

Lake was initially arrested and jailed in May 2000. At thattime, prosecutors charged him only under the criminal libel law. However, inApril prosecutors added the criminal defamation charge but postponed prosecutionpending a state supreme court decision on the rarely used 126-year-old criminallibel statute.

The libel statute was thrown out last month after thecourt ruled that if failed to incorporate the “actual malice”standard for public officials and public figures as adopted by the U.S. SupremeCourt in 1964. The statute also failed to require that the statements befalse.

The attempt to now prosecute Lake under the criminal defamationstatute has some journalism organizations accusing prosecutors of abusing theirauthority.

“This is an unconscionable assault by a government prosecutoron the cherished American principle of free speech,” said SPJ National PresidentRobert Ledger, editorial page editor for the Springfield (Mo.) News Leader. “Theproper channel to settle any differences about what Ian Lake said was in civilcourt and that has already been done. Government should not be deciding what isproper or improper speech.”

According to a Dec. 10 Deseret Newsarticle, David Lake said he is hopeful his son will avoid prosecution becausethe county attorney, who brought the defamation charge, was defeated last monthin his bid for re-election.

“I’m hoping that this newprosecutor will have the good sense to basically just drop the issue,”Lake said.

The Student Press Law Center and other media organizationsthat filed a friend-of-the-court brief are now asking the incoming countyprosecutor to drop the new charges.

SPLC View: As Donald Meyers, opinionspage editor of the Provo Daily Herald, has said, “Criminal prosecution ofspeech is similar to using an atomic bomb to kill a fly.” Given the Utah SupremeCourt’s decision in the earlier case, there seems little chance that the Utahprosecutor will prevail in his criminal defamation case against Lake. Still, ina striking example of the danger of allowing criminal prosecution for speech,the government attorney here — who is clearly bent on punishing Lake forthe speech contained on his Web site — has the power to haul Lake (and, byextension, his family) back to court where he will once again face the enormousexpense and burden of defending against a criminal prosecution funded andsupported by government resources.