Criminal charges against Fla. 'nerd gang' dropped

Prosecutors admit 1945 state statute is unconstitutional

FLORIDA— Criminal defamation charges brought against two 19 year-olds who created a Web site accusing a high school teacher of having homosexual relations with a minor student have been dropped by Citrus County officials, who have admitted the statute they were prosecuting them under to be unconstitutional.

The two former Lecanto High School students, Ryan Vella and Christopher Cohen, had been charged with criminal defamation, under a 1945 Florida statute which makes it a first degree misdemeanor to publish something “which tends to expose any individual or any religious group to hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy ….”

The Web site, posted by the two 19 year-olds, along with three current and former Lecanto High School students, accused a teacher at the school of having a relationship with a student.

The site featured a photograph of the student at a school dance and superimposed an image of the teacher in place of the student’s date.

Charges against the two were raised to a third-degree felony under state anti-gang laws because county officials said the five people involved with the Web site operated like a gang.

The group of students and former students called themselves the “Wrathlords”.

But Robyn Blumner, executive director of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, said county prosecutors dropped all charges against Vella and Cohen when they determined the defamation statute to be unconstitutional.

The Florida ACLU was going to represent the two 19 year-olds if the charges had been pursued.

Blumner said the ACLU would file a civil suit against the prosecutors if they ever planned to prosecute under the criminal defamation statute.

“But the prosecutors are likely to write a memo to say the law is unconstitutional and they won’t prosecute under it again,” she said.

Although the teacher or student named on the Web site could file a civil libel suit, Blumner said neither had done so, and if they did, the ACLU would not be involved.

Fall 1997, reports