Student arrested for libel challenges statute in U.S. court

COLORADO — Thomas Mink, a University of Northern Coloradostudent who was arrested for criminal libel after he posted an altered photo ofa professor on his Web site, has appealed to a federal appeals court tochallenge the constitutionality of the state’s criminal libellaw.

Mink, author of the satirical Web site The Howling Pig, altered aphoto of the professor to look like Gene Simmons, lead singer of KISS, andposted the photo on his site, along with a satirical biography of the professor.But Mink’s computer was soon confiscated by police and Mink was arrestedon the grounds that he violated the criminal libel statute.

Criminal libelstatues are different from civil libel laws, which allow victims of libel toseek compensation from speakers. Criminal libel laws–which exist in 17states–allow the state to fine or imprison speakers of defamatorystatements.

Mink and the ACLU sued the City of Greeley Police and others inJanuary 2004, alleging a violation of Mink’s right to free speech. Thelawsuit challenged the libel law and sought to block police from charging Minkunder it.

A few days following the January 2004 confiscation, U.S. DistrictJudge Lewis Babcock approved a temporary restraining order that blockedprosecution of Mink. In the same month, the district attorney said he would notprosecute Mink under the libel law because the professor involved was considereda public figure, so the criticism was not unlawful.

In February 2004, Minkand the ACLU added the Colorado Attorney General as a defendant in the lawsuit.The city of Greeley and the detective who seized Mink’s computer settled,but Mink and the ACLU wanted to continue to fight for the unconstitutionality ofthe criminal libel statute.

”There is no legitimate place for acriminal libel statute in a free society,” said Mark Silverstein, legaldirector of the ACLU of Colorado.