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Supreme Court throws out 1876 criminal libel statute

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         UTAH         Libel         Nov 19, 2002    

Supreme Court throws out 1876 criminal libel statute

  • The court, declaring an old criminal libel law unconstitutional, dismissed a prosecution against a teen who posted offensive comments on a Web site.

The Supreme Court of Utah issued a unanimous ruling Nov. 15 striking down a criminal libel law that had been on the books in that state in 1876. The court said the law “infringes upon a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech” and is thus “overbroad and unconstitutional.”

The ruling came in a case brought against Ian Michael Lake, who was arrested in 2000 for posting negative statements about administrators and students at his high school on his own Web site. Lake was 16 when he was arrested.

Lake called the then principal of his school a “town drunk” and referred to some female students as “sluts.” He also accused the principal of sleeping with a school secretary.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case arguing that the statute used to prosecute Lake should be declared unconstitutional.

“Freedom of speech is not only the hallmark of a free people, but is, indeed, an essential attribute of the sovereignty of citizenship,” the court wrote, quoting another decision it made in 1988.

The court said the criminal libel statute failed to comport with modern First Amendment standards laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The law did not contain a requirement that “actual malice” be proven when the statement concerns public figures. The U.S. Supreme Court has said “actual malice” — defined as knowledge of or reckless disregard for the falsity of a statement — is a necessary component of any libel claim involving a public figure.

The Utah law also did not provide a defense for truthful statements.

“We are pleased that the court has thrown out this anachronistic and unconstitutional law,” said Janelle Eurick, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. “While perhaps offensive, Ian’s statements are not criminal, and the overzealous prosecution of this young man reflects precisely the kind of heavy-handed censorship the First Amendment forbids.”

The ACLU of Utah participated in the case, arguing on behalf of Lake.

The court’s ruling did not invalidate another Utah law, enacted in 1973, which also provides criminal penalties for defamation. That law, unlike the 19th-century version, does contain the actual malice component required by under the First Amendment, according to Eurick.

Lake already has been charged under the 1973 law.

(Utah v. Lake; Counsel: Richard Van Wagoner, Snow, Christensen & Martineau, Salt Lake City) WT

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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