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Utah attacks First Amendment ideals by pursuing former student, says SPJ


Contact: Robert Leger, SPJ National President, 417/836-1113 or cell 417/425-9140 or rleger@spj.org
Donald W. Meyers, SPJ Utah Headliners Chapter President, 801/344-2544

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Beaver County attorney in Utah should stop pursuing defamation charges against a former Milford High School student, officials with the Society of Professional Journalists said today.

“This is an unconscionable assault by a government prosecutor on the cherished American principle of free speech,” said SPJ National President Robert Leger, editorial page editor for the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “The proper channel to settle any differences about what Ian Lake said was in civil court and that has already been done. Government should not be deciding what is proper or improper speech.”

Lake received a subpoena Monday ordering him to appear in court to answer charges under a 1973 defamation law. Lake, who operated a Web site on which he made disparaging remarks about his high school classmates and administrators, was arrested and charged with criminal libel. Lake, now 19 and living in California, was 16 at the time.

The charges come after the Utah Supreme Court unanimously ruled last month that an 1875 criminal libel statue, under which Lake was also charged, was overly broad and unconstitutional. 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.”

SPJ and its Utah Headliners chapter participated in a friend-of-the-court brief in the case to support the position that the 1875 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 groups have since asked incoming County Attorney Von Christiansen to end the Lake prosecution.

“Criminal libel and defamation statutes, which protect personal reputation rather than public order, have become obsolete and unnecessary in light of modern civil remedies for defamation. In this case, any persons who believe they have been harmed by the speech on Lake’s Web site have had the opportunity to seek vindication and compensation through a civil lawsuit against Lake. In fact, the school principal filed a civil defamation action against Lake, which has now been resolved,” wrote Salt Lake City media attorney Jeff Hunt on behalf of the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society to Christiansen.

Donald W. Meyers, Utah Headliners chapter president and opinions page editor at The (Provo) Daily Herald said, “Criminal prosecution of speech is similar to using an atomic bomb to kill a fly. A civil defamation action, like a flyswatter, is a much more precise tool and presents less collateral damage to protected speech. Because some of the earliest prosecutions under Utah’s criminal libel statute were against newspaper editors, SPJ’s concern in this regard is more than theoretical.”

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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