Free Expression - In May 2000, Beaver County deputies seized Ian Lake’s computer, arrested the 16-year-old Milford High School student, and for seven days, incarcerated him in the Iron County Youth Detention Center. His crime? An Internet web site that he created at home and without the use of school resources that included parodic statements about classmates, teachers, and the Milford High School principal.
Lake created his site as part of an escalating war of words and in response to other student-created web sites that contained disparaging remarks about his friend. Although his site contained no threats of violence or references to weapons, fears of a Columbine-type situation spread through the community, and upon his arrest, Lake was charged under Utah’s rarely used criminal libel statute.
In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court clearly laid out the constitutional requirements for criminal libel laws. Following that decision, many statutes similar to Utah’s have been successfully challenged as unconstitutionally over broad and vague because they purport to punish statements made with “ill will.” While perhaps tasteless and offensive – and even if made with “ill will” – Lake’s statements are not criminal. The ACLU of Utah believes that this overzealous prosecution reflects precisely the kind of heavy-handed censorship that the First Amendment forbids, and that it is even more important in the wake of the Columbine tragedy to preserve appropriate constitutional boundaries. At the request and with the full support of Lake and his father, who wishes to maintain the family’s authority to impose proper discipline in such matters, the ACLU of Utah and cooperating attorney Richard Van Wagoner filed a motion to dismiss Lake’s criminal charges on the ground that Utah’s criminal libel statute is unconstitutional on its face.
On January 23, 2001, Fifth District Juvenile Court Judge Joseph E. Jackson ruled against our motion to dismiss, yet acknowledged that it “raises serious and substantial questions about the facial validity of Utah’s criminal libel statute, that there is some merit for the position that the statute is unconstitutional, and that there is no just reason for delay in certifying the court’s denial of the Motion to Dismiss for immediate appeal.” He referred the case to the Utah Supreme Court, which agreed to hear our arguments on the unconstitutionality of the criminal libel statute. On August 2, 2001, we submitted our brief and on March 13, 2002 the court heard oral arguments. In a November 15, 2002 ruling, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously declared the state’s criminal libel law unconstitutional.