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Teen challenges prosecution for his 'obsenity-laced' website

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         UTAH         Libel         Dec 6, 2000    

Teen challenges prosecution for his ‘obsenity-laced’ website

  • A state appeals court may choose to hear the case, which claims the law fails constitutional analysis because it lacks the actual malice standard.

A Utah appellate court may hear a constitutional challenge of the state’s criminal libel statute stemming from a case in the Beaver County juvenile court. On Dec. 5, Judge Joseph Jackson denied a 17-year-old defendant’s motion to dismiss, but certified the issue of whether the law infringes on First Amendment rights to the appeals court.

Ian Lake, a former student at Milford High School in Milford City, posted on the Internet what The Salt Lake Tribune described as “an obscenity-laced home page.” On the website, Lake referred to several female classmates as “sluts,” called the principal “the town drunk,” and questioned the work ethic and competency of other school faculty. Lake, 16 years old at the time, spent seven days in juvenile detention following his arrest in May. The site has since been pulled.

Lake’s attorney, Richard Van Wagoner, argued the criminal libel statute does not meet constitutional muster because it lacks the “actual malice” standard, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court since 1964 when the Court ruled a public figure must prove actual malice by a publisher to succeed in a libel claim. The Court later added actual malice as a constitutional requirement in all criminal libel statutes.

The rarely used statute directs 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 Utah Court of Appeals has discretion to accept the case. Van Wagoner expected the court to accept the appeal because of the constitutional issues at stake.

Lake’s former principal sued him in August for libel. Last month, Lake, who has since moved to California to live with grandparents, said he would file counterclaims against the principal for civil rights violations while a student.

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

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