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Teen asks Utah Supreme Court to strike down criminal libel law

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    NMU         UTAH         Libel         Mar 20, 2002    

Teen asks Utah Supreme Court to strike down criminal libel law

  • A high school student was charged with violating the state’s 126-year-old criminal libel statute when he posted “vulgar” comments on a Web site about classmates and faculty, including the principal.

Utah’s archaic and seldom-used criminal libel statute should be struck down as unconstitutional, the attorney for a teen-ager accused of violating the law argued before the state Supreme Court on March 13.

Ian Lake, a former student at Milford High School in Milford City, posted derogatory comments about students and faculty on a Web site he and his classmates created during the 1999-2000 school year. The comments on the Web page were “in the vulgar but not uncommon vernacular of high school students” and portrayed the school principal as the “town drunk,” according to court papers filed by his attorneys.

Lake, who was 16, was charged under Utah’s 126-year-old criminal libel statute, and his Web site was shut down. He was jailed for seven days in a juvenile facility. Lake has since moved to California.

A jury has not heard the case against Lake. Instead, a trial judge asked the state’s Court of Appeals to decide whether the criminal libel statute was constitutional. The appellate court turned the question over to the state Supreme Court.

Lake’s attorney, Richard Van Wagoner, argued before the high court that the statute is unconstitutionally vague and fatally flawed because it lacks the “actual malice” standard required by the U.S. Supreme Court. That standard, adopted in 1964 for civil libel claims, requires a public figure to prove that a publisher made an allegedly defamatory statement knowing the statement was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. The Court later added actual malice as a constitutional requirement in criminal libel statutes.

Utah’s criminal libel statute states that “a person is guilty of libel if he intentionally and with a malicious intent to injure another publishes or procures to be published any libel.” The crime, a misdemeanor, carries a penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, Wagoner said.

Wagoner argued to the state Supreme Court that the statute is unconstitutionally overbroad because it allows prosecution of truthful statements made with ill will or hatred and allows prosecution of false statements regardless of the actual malice standard.

“It criminalizes substantial conduct that is protected by the First Amendment,” Wagoner said in an interview.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists supported Lake with a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the statute should be overturned.

Wagoner does not expect a ruling from the state Supreme Court for several months.

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

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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