Criminal libel laws battled out West

10th Circuit Court denies N. Colorado student’s criminal libel appeal over Web site

A federal appeals court has affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of claims made in a lawsuit that challenged the state’s criminal libel statute that was filed by a former University of Northern Colorado student.

But Thomas Mink, who was investigated by police for publishing a satirical online journal, may be eligible to receive damages from the assistant district attorney who approved a search warrant for his home, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled April 16.

Greeley Police searched Mink’s home in December 2003 and confiscated his computer after University of Northern Colorado Professor Junius Peake filed a complaint after a doctored photo of him was published in the online journal, according to the ruling.

Days after the search, officers told Mink’s attorney they were pursuing charges under the state’s criminal libel law, which makes it a crime to maliciously publish false, damaging information about someone who is not a public figure.

Mink filed a federal lawsuit that said the criminal libel law violated his constitutional right to free speech and that he was seeking damages for the search and seizure of his property. A federal district court dismissed Mink’s case in October 2004, saying his claims against prosecutors were protected by absolute immunity, and as he was never charged under the criminal libel law, he lacked standing to challenge it.

Mink appealed the district court ruling, and the federal appeals court ruled he did not have standing to challenge the criminal libel law because the district attorney stated he would not pursue the charges. The panel also ruled that the prosecutor did not have absolute immunity for investigative decisions and sent the case back to the federal district court for consideration.

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 curiae — or “friend-of-the-court” — brief with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case urging that all criminal libel laws be recognized as unconstitutional.

Utah eliminates criminal libel

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed a bill abolishing the Utah’s antiquated criminal libel laws in March.

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 charged with one count of criminal libel after posting derogatory comments about the school’s principal and other students on his Web site.

Sixteen states have a criminal libel law, which is different from the civil libel laws in all 50 states that allow victims of allegedly defamatory statements to seek damages from speakers in civil court. n