PRESS RELEASE: Student Press Law Center argues for end to criminal libel prosecutions

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The Student Press Law Center argues in a brief submitted to a federal appellate court today that all criminal libel statutes should be declared unconstitutional.

The SPLC, joined by the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, filed the brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in the case of Mink v. Buck.

All 50 states have civil libel laws that allow victims of allegedly defamatory statements to seek compensation from speakers. Criminal libel laws are different in that they allow the state to fine or imprison speakers of defamatory statements. Seventeen states, including Colorado, currently have criminal libel laws.

The SPLC brief supports the position of Thomas Mink, a University of Northern Colorado student who started an independent Web site in 2003 critical of UNC finance professor Junius Peake. On the site, Peake’s photograph was altered to look like KISS bass guitarist and frontman Gene Simmons. Under it, a caption described “Mr. Junius Puke” as the online newsletter’s founder. A disclaimer warned readers not to confuse Peake, “an upstanding member of the community,” with Puke, the purported editor of the publication. Mink called the online newsletter an effort to “vent frustration” and draw attention to issues at the school.

In December 2003, Mink was arrested and his computer was seized under a Colorado law making it a crime to make false and defamatory statements about individuals. Ultimately, however, police did not charge Mink with a violation of the statute.

Mink sued to have the Colorado law declared unconstitutional, but his challenge was dismissed by the United States District Court for the District of Colorado on the ground that, as he was never charged under the law, he lacked standing to challenge it.

The amicus brief filed by the SPLC and the Silha Center argues that the court should not only allow Mink’s claim to go forward, but should find that no criminal libel statute can satisfy the strict scrutiny required by the U.S. Supreme Court of content-based restrictions on speech. As stated in the brief, the “continuing threat of a criminal libel prosecution can undermine and eradicate the First Amendment’s protection for speech critical of the government.”

“As this case demonstrates, young people are especially vulnerable to the abuse of criminal libel laws,” said SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman. The brief cites a Utah case involving a high school student who was arrested, jailed for seven days in a juvenile detention center and charged with criminal libel for publishing a Web site critical of school officials. In 2002, the Utah Supreme Court declared that state’s law unconstitutional.

“At a time when emerging democracies around the world have rejected criminal libel as an antiquated remnant of repressive regimes, it is ironic that the land of the First Amendment would continue to tolerate criminal penalties for what is often political speech,” said Jane E. Kirtley, director of the Silha Center and Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “This case presents an opportunity for the courts to clarify, once and for all, that criminal libel has no place in any mature democracy that values debate and tolerates dissent.”

The Student Press Law Center’s 2005 efforts to put an end to criminal libel prosecutions are supported by a generous grant from The Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation.

For further information:Mark Goodman, Executive DirectorStudent Press Law Center703/807-1904The Student Press Law Center is a national, non-profit, non-partisan organization established in 1974 to promote and preserve the free expression rights of student journalists.

Jane E. Kirtley, DirectorSilha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law612/625-3421The Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law is a research center with the primary mission of conducting research on, and promoting understanding of, legal and ethical issues affecting the mass media.

Download the SPLC brief (Approx. 1MB)CASE: Mink v. Salazar, 004 US Dist. LEXIS 22002, 2004 WL 2430092 (D. Colo. Oct. 26, 2004), appeal docketed sub nom.
Mink v. Buck, No. 04-1496 (10th Cir. Nov. 11, 2004).