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Utah Supreme Court Rules Criminal Libel Statute Unconstitutional


Bruce D. Brown, SPJ First Amendment counsel, 202/861-1660 or bbrown@bakerlaw.com
Robert Leger, SPJ President, 417/836-1113 or rleger@spj.org

SALT LAKE CITY – The Society of Professional Journalists is hailing the Utah Supreme Court’s unanimous decision Nov. 15 to strike down the state’s criminal libel law as unconstitutionally overbroad.

In re I.M.L. vs. Utah involved the case of Ian Lake, who operated a Web site on which he made disparaging remarks about his high school classmates and administrators. Lake, then 16 years old, was arrested and charged with criminal libel.

The Utah Supreme Court held that, “quite obviously,” Utah’s criminal libel law did not pass muster as a matter of constitutional law and “infringe[d] upon a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech.”

“The First Amendment guarantees free and open discourse,” said SPJ President Robert Leger, editorial page editor for the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “To mean anything, it must protect disparaging opinions as well as pleasant ones. The Utah court’s decision is an affirmation of liberty.”

The Court held that the statute failed to incorporate the constitutional requirement that “actual malice” must be shown in a case where a defendant is accused of defaming a public figure. Moreover, the court held that the statute was inadequate because it “provided no immunity for truthful statements.”

“This represents a major victory for the media,” said Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, at Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. “Reporters in Utah no longer have the specter of prosecution looming over them. This brings Utah in line with the majority of states in the country.”

Fewer than half of the states still have criminal libel statutes of any kind remaining on the books, and several of those have been invalidated by court decision.

SPJ and its Utah chapter participated in a friend-of-the-court brief in the case to support the position that the statute was unconstitutionally overbroad. Other media organizations joining the brief were the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation's largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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