Former high school student pleads guilty to criminal libel

COLORADO — A former high school student pleaded guilty to criminal libel last week, admitting that he impersonated one of this former teachers and sent threatening messages to students on the social networking Web site

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

Johnson was placed on administrative leave earlier this year during a police investigation of the “suggestive and threatening” messages that had been sent to students from the profile, the Sentinel reported.

Johnson was reinstated in early September after he was cleared in the investigation. Johnson also told the Sentinel that he knew Gugat was the guilty party, and authorities “had him red-handed. … There was no one else that could have done it.”

The Mesa County district attorney dropped a criminal impersonation charge from Gugat’s case as part of a plea agreement. Gugat could face up to two years in a youth correctional program, probation or six months in the county jail. A sentencing hearing will be held in February 2007, the newspaper reported.

Colorado is one of 17 states with a criminal libel statute, which is different from the civil libel laws in all 50 states that allow victims of allegedly defamatory statements to seek compensation from speakers. Criminal libel laws allow the state to fine or imprison speakers of defamatory statements.

In December 2003, Thomas Mink, a University of Northern Colorado student, was arrested and had his computer seized by police after he created a Web site critical of a Northern Colorado professor. Although he was ultimately not charged, Mink sued to have the criminal libel law declared unconstitutional. The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado dismissed his case, stating because Mink was never charged under the law, he lacked standing to challenge it. Mink appealed, and has vowed to continue his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

In April 2005, the Student Press Law Center joined with the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law in filing an amicus — or “friend-of-the-court” — brief with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, stating that not only should the court allow Mink’s claim to go forward, but also should find that all criminal libel statutes are unconstitutional because they cannot withstand First Amendment scrutiny.

The Mink case was argued before the 10th Circuit Court on Jan. 9, 2006. A decision is still pending.