Former Colo. student publisher reaches $425k settlement with prosecutor, ending Howling Pig legal marathon

After an eight-year legal fight, the former student and publisher of the Howling Pig has reached a $425,000 settlement with former prosecutor Susan Knox.

Thomas Mink was a student at the University of Northern Colorado in 2003 when police searched his home and confiscated his computer. They were responding to complaints by a UNC professor that Mink libeled him in his satirical newsletter, the Howling Pig.

The professor, Junius Peake, claimed Mink violated Colorado’s criminal libel statute when he published a photo of Peake that was modified to look like KISS guitarist Gene Simmons. The photo was labeled “Mr. Junius Puke.”

Knox, then a deputy district attorney, reviewed and signed the search warrant that led to the confiscation of Mink’s computer. Mink spent a week in jail, but prosecutors ultimately declined to file charges.

Mink, with help from the ACLU of Colorado, sued Knox, a police detective and the city of Greeley, Colo., the following month. He claimed the state’s criminal libel statute violated the First Amendment, and that the police search violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. The city and the detective settled soon after.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2007 that Mink lacked standing to challenge the libel statute because he was never charged under it. It allowed his Fourth Amendment claims to move forward, however, rejecting Knox’s argument that she was protected by “absolute immunity” from the lawsuit.

On a second trip to the Tenth Circuit in 2010, the court again sided with Mink. It found that Knox was not entitled to “qualified immunity” from the suit, because the legal standards involved were clearly established at the time she signed the search warrant.

In June, a lower court declared that Mink’s rights were violated. Federal District Court Judge Lewis Babcock held that Knox should have known the Howling Pig was protected by the First Amendment, and thus that there was no “probable cause” to issue the search warrant.

Her lawyers appealed to the Tenth Circuit a third time, but Monday’s settlement came before the court could rule on the matter. The move brings the litigation to an end.

In a press release, ACLU attorney Mark Silverstein said the case sets an important precedent.

“This ruling, and this substantial monetary settlement, sends a forceful message that prosecutors cannot simply rubber-stamp a police officer’s request to invade the privacy of a person’s home,” he said. “Prosecutors must carefully review requests for search warrants. This is especially true, as in this case, when the search seeks evidence of how someone exercised his or her right of free expression.”

Mink’s attorneys said they were disappointed, however, that the courts did not directly rule on the constitutionality of Colorado’s criminal libel statute. They said the appellate rulings do make clear that the law cannot be used against publications like early editions of the Howling Pig.

“This case reaffirms that satire, parody, and expressions of opinion are fully protected by the First Amendment,” Silverstein said. “Prosecutors and police cannot use Colorado’s antiquated 19th-century criminal libel statute to intimidate, threaten, or silence speakers who criticize public officials and spoof community leaders.”

Knox is no longer with the district attorney’s office. The Howling Pig resumed publication; its website shows a total of 11 issues.

(For more details on the case, including a timeline of events, see our June 2011 news flash.)