Supreme Court denies prosecutor’s appeal in student’s suit over criminal libel probe

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Supreme Court on Tuesday declined tohear an appeal from a former prosecutor who authorized a warrant to search astudent’s home and seize his computer while investigating an accusationthat he had violated Colorado’s criminal libel statute.

The investigation began in 2003, when Northern Colorado UniversityProfessor Junius Peake alleged that Thomas Mink’s online journal, TheHowling Pig, published doctored photos and parody columns defaming him. This prompted Ward County prosecutor Susan Knox to issue a warrant.

Police then told Mink’s attorney they were going to charge Mink underthe state’s criminal libel law, which makes it a criminal offense topublish maliciously false, damaging information about someone who is not apublic figure. Mink ultimately was not charged.

Criminal libel laws stand in contrast to civil libel statutes, which existin all 50 states and allow individuals to sue in civil court for damages causedby defamatory statements. Most states do not have criminal libel statutes; Utah, for example, repealed its law last year.

In 2004, Mink filed a lawsuit arguing that the criminal libel law, and theinvestigation he endured after being accused of breaking it, violated theConstitution’s protections for free speech. He also filed a claim fordamages against Knox based on her role in reviewing the application for a searchwarrant. The federal district court refused to address the constitutionality ofthe criminal libel statute, ruling that, because Mink never was charged with thecrime, he had no standing to contest it. Mink unsuccessfully appealed thisdecision to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the Student Press Lawcenter filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Mink’s Constitutionalargument.

The appellate court, however, also ruled that Mink might be able tocontinue his suit against Knox and be entitled to damages if Mink can prove thatKnox is not entitled to qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity protects most public officials from being personallysued for actions that are part of their official duties. Prosecutors acting asadvocates for the state qualify for absolute immunity, a stronger form ofprotection. The 10th Circuit ruled that Knox did not act as an advocate for thestate when issuing the warrant, and thus at most had qualified immunity. Knoxargued in her appeal that she was entitled to absolute immunity, but the SupremeCourt declined to hear the case.

The case now returns to the U.S. District Court in Denver. According tothe 10th Circuit decision, Knox can prove she is immune either by showing thatprobable cause existed to justify the warrant or that it was unclear howprevious Supreme Court cases related to the criminal libel statute.

By A. Matthew Deal, SPLC staff writer