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Student charged with criminal libel over web site content

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         UTAH         Libel         Jun 22, 2000    

Student charged with criminal libel over web site content

  • A Utah high school student was charged with criminal libel over a personal website with obscene and vulgar references to classmates and school officials.

Ian Lake, a 16-year-old high school junior, was charged with one count of criminal libel for the content of his website.

Lake, who had been a student at Milford High School in Milford City, put up what The Salt Lake Tribune described as “an obscenity-laced home page.” On the website, Lake referred to several female classmates as “sluts,” called one of the school’s officials as “the town drunk,” and questioned the work ethic and competency of other school faculty.

On May 18, Lake’s computer was seized by sheriff’s deputies, who had learned of the site from the parents of one of the girls mentioned there. The computer was taken to the state’s crime lab for analysis. Lake was held in juvenile detention for seven nights and then sent to California to stay with relatives. His web site has been shut down.

On June 5, Lake pleaded not guilty to the criminal libel charge in a misdemeanor juvenile hearing before Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Jackson.

The prosecutor, County Attorney Leo Kanell, dismissed an accompanying slander charge against Lake. According to Salt Lake City’s Deseret News, Kanell said that Lake was being charged with criminal libel because the posting of the statements on the website “amounts to publishing.” This is reportedly the first time Utah’s libel laws have been applied to the Internet.

Stephen Clark, an attorney with the ACLU in Utah, said that the question is “whether what [Lake] did meets the elements of criminal libel.” He believes that Lake’s website does not.

“There is nothing magic about the Internet” that separates an Internet posting from any other published material and removes First Amendment protection, Clark explained.

One of the targets of Lake’s website is also considering filing a civil suit against Lake. Walt Schofield, principal of Milford High School, had “clashed” with Lake “on several occasions” prior to the website postings, according to The Salt Lake Tribune, and was one of Lake’s main targets on the site.

A pretrial hearing for the criminal claim is set for July 11.

(Utah v. Lake) JM

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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