By Kirsten Murphy, Silha Fellow
In a unanimous ruling on Nov. 15, 2002, the Utah Supreme Court struck down the state's 1876 criminal libel statute. The case, I.M.L. v. Utah, 2002 UT 110, arose when a 16-year-old in Milford, Utah posted defamatory statements on the Internet.
The teenager, Ian Lake, was arrested and jailed in May 2000, charged with criminal libel and slander for posting statements on his Web site that accused the Milford High School principal of being the "town drunk" and calling female classmates "sluts."
The slander charge was dropped, but Lake was convicted of criminal libel in juvenile district court. Lake relocated to California shortly afterwards. Lake appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals, which referred the case to the Utah Supreme Court. The statute, Lake urged the court, was unconstitutional on its face and should be invalidated. Chief Justice Christine M. Durham, writing for the majority, held that the statute violated the First Amendment. The statute is overbroad, the court concluded, because it covers speech that is protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, it does not incorporate the "actual malice" standard that is constitutionally required in order to prove defamation of a public figure. "Quite obviously, the plain language of Utah's statute does not comport with the requirements laid down by the United States Supreme Court. . . . The statute punishes all statements made 'maliciously,' but the common law definition of 'malice' is quite different from the 'actual malice' contemplated by the United States Supreme Court," wrote the court. Actual malice is defined by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), as knowledge that a statement is false, or reckless disregard for whether the statement is false or not. Furthermore, the court recognized, the statute lacks any defense of truth, permitting even true statements to be the basis for prosecution. After the Utah Supreme Court ruled, former Beaver County prosecutor Leo Kanell charged Lake under a 1973 criminal defamation law, which defines defamation to include the constitutional requirement of "actual malice," unlike the 1876 law. Newly elected Beaver County Attorney Von Christiansen dropped the charges and the case was dismissed.