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Utah high court tosses criminal-libel law

By The Associated Press

11.18.02

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Editor's note: Misdemeanor defamation of character charges against Ian Lake were dropped Jan. 7, 2003, after County Attorney Von Christiansen asked that they be dismissed. The previous county attorney had brought the defamation charges before the Utah Supreme Court overturned the criminal-libel law under which Lake originally was charged.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court ruled late last week that the state's criminal-libel statute is overly broad and unconstitutional.

At issue was the case against Ian Lake. Lake was arrested, jailed and charged in May 2000 for using his personal Web site to make disparaging comments about his high school administrators and classmates.

On the site, Lake called the school's principal a "town drunk" and alleged he was having an affair with a school secretary.

The then-17-year-old was charged under an 1876 law which hasn't been used since the 1890s, when a newspaper editor was prosecuted for writing that a delegate was unfit for election to a constitutional convention.

"The court properly concluded this statute, as written, criminalized a substantial amount of conduct protected by the First Amendment," said Lake's attorney, Richard Van Wagoner.

In the Nov. 15 decision, the court ruled that Utah's criminal-libel statute punished false statements against public figures made without knowledge or recklessness. The court also said the statute provides no immunity for truthful statements.

"This statute has problems, and has the potential for criminalizing truthful speech — which the First Amendment does protect," said attorney Laura Dupaix, who represented the state.

Dupaix said they felt they made "good reasonable arguments" that the statute could be read constitutionally, but that they didn't have any quarrel with the decision or its reasoning.

"It's one of those cases where we defended a legislative enactment, that's what our office does," Dupaix said.

She also said the ruling would not likely have much effect on criminal-libel prosecutions because a 1973 criminal-defamation statute on the books doesn't have the problems that are in the original law that the court objected to.

Former ACLU attorney Stephen Clark, who also represented Lake on the case, said the court's ruling corrects an antiquated law.

"The statue really applies 18th century concepts to a 21st century medium," Clark said. "Now Utah joins the modern age, where people are free to criticize public officials without fear they'll be thrown in jail."

Lake has since moved from Utah to Desert Hot Springs, Calif., with his family, and graduated from Palm Springs High School.

David Lake, the boy's father, settled a civil libel suit last September with Walter Schofield, the former principal of Milford High School in southern Utah who has taken a job at a Salt Lake City school. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Previous

Teen's lawyers urge Utah high court to throw out criminal-libel law
Under 1876 statute, Ian Lake was jailed, charged for using his Web site to call principal a 'town drunk,' allege that he was having affair with school secretary.  03.14.02

Related

Puerto Rico won't appeal ruling that struck down criminal-libel law
Federal appeals court finds statute is unconstitutional 'as applied to statements regarding public officials or figures,' conflicts with First Amendment.  01.28.03

Regulating rudeness: why insults aren't a crime
By Ken Paulson School administrators are increasingly tempted to try to control off-campus student speech.  12.01.02

Oregon teen expelled over off-color Web site sues school district
Legal experts say such cases illustrate the tension between free speech, school safety.  01.25.03

Georgia high court backs hog farmer on public-figure claim
Justices rule free-speech principles protecting newspapers and broadcasters also apply to the Web.  11.30.02

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