Former Colorado high school student pleads guilty to criminal libel

Aformer high school student pleaded guilty to criminal libel this month,admitting that he impersonated one of his former teachers and sent threateningmessages to students on the social networking Web

The Grand Junction Sentinel reported that Todd Gugat,18 and a former student at Fruita Monument High School, admitted to a MesaCounty magistrate that he had been impersonating Bill Johnson, his formerteacher, online. Gugat took photos from Johnson’s personal page andcreated another fake, sexually suggestive profile for him on the popular socialnetworking Web site.

Johnson was placed on administrative leave earlierthis year during a police investigation of the “suggestive and threatening”messages that had been sent to students from the profile, theSentinelreported, but was reinstated in early September after he was cleared in theinvestigation.

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SPLCView: This is one of those cases that tests even hard-core First Amendmentproponents. What this student pleaded guilty to — impersonating a teacheronline and creating the impression the teacher was sending sexually suggestivemessages to students — is repulsive. It could have cost the teacher bothhis job and his reputation. Still, there are ways to punish this student —both criminally and civilly — that don’t require use of a criminal libelstatute, which surveys have shown are much abused and unevenly enforced bygovernment officials seeking to squelch speech or target individuals they don’tlike.  Because Colorado’s criminal libel statute is currently underscrutiny by a federal appeals court, Gugat’s conviction could eventually beoverturned if the law is ruled unconstitutional.