Utah set to repeal criminal libel laws

UTAH — After state legislators passed a bill to repeal them, Utah’s 131-year-old criminal libel laws are likely to become history.

The Utah House of Representatives voted 70-0 to pass Senate Bill 86, which would abolish the state’s antiquated criminal laws that cover libel and slander. The only step left is for Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to sign the bill into law.

The bill comes after the Utah Supreme Court ruled in the case I.M.L. v. State of Utah in November 2002 that the state’s criminal libel laws were unconstitutional.

In that case, Ian Lake, a 16-year-old high school student at Milford High School, was arrested and spent seven days in a juvenile detention facility after posting derogatory comments about the school’s principal and other students on his Web site.

Lake was charged with one count of criminal libel before the court threw out the case, stating that the law does not apply the “actual malice” standard — which requires knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the facts — for statements concerning public officials and public figures.

Seventeen states have 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 in civil court. Criminal libel laws allow the state to fine or imprison speakers of defamatory statements.

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 in the case of Mink v. Buck, which centers around a former University of Northern Colorado student who was arrested and had his computer seized after he posted comments critical of one of his professors. Although he was not charged, Mink sued claiming criminal libel is 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.

The brief states 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.

Utah’s criminal libel statute dates to 1876, before it became a state.

Huntsman has until March 20 to sign the bill to repeal the laws.

By Jared Taylor, SPLC staff writer