Utah court rejects criminal libel statute; says ‘actual malice,’ falsity necessary

UTAH ‘ A 126-year-old statute that made libel a criminal act was ruled overly broad and unconstitutional in November by the Utah Supreme Court.

The case dates back to 2000 when Ian Lake, a then 16-year-old student at Milford High School, was arrested and charged with one count of criminal libel and one count of criminal slander after posting derogatory comments on his Web site. Lake referred to several students’ sexual history and also accused his high school principal of being the ‘town drunk’ and having an affair with the school secretary.

Lake spent seven days in a juvenile detention facility. The state later dropped the slander charge but continued to pursue a libel conviction.

Most libel claims are civil actions for damages, not criminal charges. But a few states, including Utah, have criminal libel statutes that are rarely used.

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

After a juvenile court refused to dismiss his case, Lake appealed the decision to the state appellate court, which in turn sent the case to the state supreme court.

Chief Justice Christine Durham, writing the majority opinion, said the statute is unconstitutional because it does not apply the ‘actual malice’ standard for statements concerning public officials and public figures, as adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Actual malice requires the person accused of libel either knew the challenged statement was false or was reckless in verifying its accuracy. The Supreme Court adopted the actual malice standard for public officials in the 1964 case, New York Times v. Sullivan, and three years later extended it to include public figures.

The state high court said the criminal statute also failed to require that the statements be false.

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

Several First Amendment rights organizations joined in the suit, including the Student Press Law Center, by filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Lake.

The state attorney general’s office said it has no plans to appeal the decision. However, the county prosecutor filed a criminal defamation charge under a separate statute last April and in December announced he was proceeding with the that charge. Lake could still face the same punishment as he did with the criminal libel charge.

I.M.L. v. State, 2002 WL31528479 (Utah Nov. 15, 2002)