Student challenges Colo. criminal libel law after police seize his computer

COLORADO — A college student who publishes asatirical online newsletter is challenging in court the Colorado criminal libellaw after police confiscated the student’s computer and threatened to arrest himfor posting photos and articles lampooning a professor.University ofNorthern Colorado student Thomas Mink says his Web newsletter, The Howling Pig, is an effort to “ventfrustration” and draw attention to issues at the school in Greeley. UNCfinance professor Junius Peake apparently was not amused when he visited thesite and saw his photograph altered to look like KISS guitarist Gene Simmons.Under it, a caption describes “Mr. Junius Puke” as the newsletter’s founder,spiritual leader and inspiration. A disclaimer warns readers not to confusePeake, “an upstanding member of the community,” with Puke, the purported editorof the publication. Nevertheless, Peake complained to Greeleypolice. Detectives executed a search warrant on Mink’s home Dec. 12 andconfiscated his computer. Detective Ken Warren allegedly told Mink to stoppublishing the online publication or face charges under the state criminal libellaw, the lawsuit claims. With the help of the American Civil LibertiesUnion of Colorado, Mink filed a federal lawsuit on Jan. 8, claiming Greeleypolice violated his right to privacy, free speech and the Fourth Amendment,which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.The lawsuit asks thecourt to order police to return Mink’s computer, to issue an injunctionprohibiting Mink from being charged while the civil case continues and todeclare the criminal libel law unconstitutional.On Jan. 9, U.S. DistrictCourt Judge Lewis Babcock granted the injunction, temporarily blocking WeldCounty prosecutors from charging Mink under the criminal libel law. The judgedid not rule on the law’s constitutionality.Weld County DistrictAttorney Al Dominguez said Greeley police had completed their investigation andprosecutors were waiting to review their report.”We’ll review thedetails of the complaint and the evidence collected and decide whether to presscharges then,” Dominguez said. Dominguez said Greeley police returned Mink’scomputer Jan. 10. Colorado journalists hope Mink’s lawsuit succeeds inoverturning the criminal libel law.The law makes it a crime to knowinglypublish or disseminate any untrue statement or object that “blackens the memory”of a deceased person or impeaches the honesty, integrity, virtue, reputation orexposes the natural defects of a living person. Most libel claims arecivil actions for damages, not criminal charges. Colorado is one of 16 stateswith criminal libel statutes on the books, according to the Media Law ResourceCenter, which tracks libel cases nationwide. “There is no place for acriminal libel statute in a free society,” said Mark Silverstein, legal directorof the ACLU of Colorado. “Civil lawsuits provide an adequate remedy fordefamation. No one should be threatened with jail for what they write orpublish.”Dominguez said the law is rarely used. “I’ve been [adistrict attorney] for 16 years and over those years, I’ve only had two or sopeople who felt that they had been libeled,” Dominguez said. “We reviewed thecases and determined that there wasn’t libel at all.”Nevertheless, MarcyGlenn, an attorney representing Mink, said it is time to dump the “archaic”statute. ”This case illustrates the danger of permittingoverbroad unconstitutional statutes to remain on the books,” Glenn said.”Police relied on this unconstitutional statute to search Mr. Mink’shome and cart off his computer and all his files on the ground that they provide