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Society Joins Fight Against Outdated Criminal Libel Law


Contacts: Al Cross, SPJ president-elect, 502/875-5136 x14 or; Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1660

INDIANAPOLIS - The Society of Professional Journalists and other media organizations are fighting to revoke Utah's antiquated criminal libel law.
A friend-of-the-court legal brief was filed Friday in the Utah Supreme Court by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and signed by the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists and its Utah Pro Chapter.

The legal fight stems from a case where Ian Michael Lake, a 16-year-old Milford High School student, was arrested in May 2000 under the criminal libel statute for creating an Internet Web site that posted parodic - but non-threatening - remarks about classmates and teachers. Lake created the site at home without school resources, and it did not contain threats of violence or references to weapons.

"This may be mischief, but it's not criminal," said SPJ President-Elect Al Cross, political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. "And it should be protected by the First Amendment."

Early this year, Lake asked the Fifth District Juvenile Court Judge Joseph E. Jackson to dismiss the charges against him, but the judge refused. Lake appealed the case in June to Utah's high court, which agreed to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the state's criminal libel law.

The Utah criminal libel statute was created in 1865 and has remained substantially unchanged since its enactment. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in order to comply with the First Amendment, criminal libel laws must require the prosecution to prove that the defendant's statements about public officials or public figures were made with "actual malice" - which requires knowledge or reckless disregard of a statement's falsity.

Utah's law has never been updated with the Supreme Court's ruling.

"Criminal libel statutes have no place in a society that values free speech," said Bruce Brown, First Amendment legal counsel for SPJ. "Many of these statutes, like Utah's, are products of the 19th century, and it should be good riddance to all of them."

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