High school student faces criminal libel charges for Web site remarks

Teen spends 7 days in jail for criticizing school staff members on home pages

UTAH -- A Milford teen spent seven days in a juvenile detention center and was forced to leave the state after being charged with criminal libel for statements he made on his personal Web site.

Ian Lake will face a misdemeanor charge of criminal libel for referring to his principal as "the town drunk," naming girls at his high school as "sluts" and making derogatory remarks about the intelligence of several teachers.

In typical civil libel suits, if an individual is libeled that person can only recover monetary damages from the person who defamed him or her. In the rarely used criminal libel charge, the state can prosecute a person for libel and impose jail time.

Stephen Clark, legal director for the Utah American Civil Liberties Union, and one of the attorneys representing Lake, said the criminal libel statute itself is unconstitutional and therefore the case should be thrown out.

"As far as we can tell the Utah statute ... is facially overbroad because it purports to criminalize perfectly legal constitutionally protected speech," Clark said. "So one of our arguments will be that this prosecution can't go forward because it is based on a statute that is unconstitutionally overbroad on its face."

Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a First Amendment advocacy group, said criminal libel laws are almost never used anymore because most states find them unnecessary and even unconstitutional.

"It is a highly unusual thing to do," Dalglish said. "There is no reason to [use it] because there's a remedy-if you libel an individual that individual can recover damages."

The last time a journalist was charged with criminal libel in Utah was 1895, but the statute was used in 1987 to send then-Salt Lake County Attorney Ted Cannon to jail for 30 days for derogatory remarks he made about a TV journalist.

Dalglish said Utah is definitely not the norm in its use of the criminal libel statute.

"I find it curious that they would prosecute a high school student under a criminal statute," Dalglish said. "Utah is definitely in the minority. "

Clark said he was amazed not only with the charge Lake is being prosecuted with, but also the way in which his case was handled by police.

"I think it's outrageous, frankly, that the prosecutor would send the sheriff over, arrest Ian, put him in jail for seven days, confiscate his computer [and] bring all of the weight and machinery of the criminal justice system to bear on this 16-year-old kid for basically saying nothing that high school students don't hear everyday in the halls. It's absurd," Clark said.

Ian's father, David Lake, said part of the problem was that Ian felt there was a double standard at his school and the Web site was the only way to get people's attention.

"I'm getting to the point where I can really understand some of these 14- and 15-year-old kids that are choosing just to go in and shoot people," David Lake said. "Because when they get so frustrated and they've tried to take their issues up the way you're supposed to take them up and they just get confounded and confounded like Ian was, I can understand why some of these kids don't see any other way out. The only advantage Ian had is that he was smart enough to see that there was another way to go after them."

Ian Lake created his Web site in response to other, similar sites made by fellow classmates that contained derogatory remarks about his friends and girlfriend. David Lake said Ian spent a lot time researching libel statutes to ensure he was within the parameters of the law.

"I'm not condoning what he did morally or socially even, but he did look at all legal issues involved," David Lake said. "He tried to construct his Web site in such a way that even though it was trash, it was legal trash."

Ian was released from the juvenile detention center to live with a grandparent in California. A pretrial conference was scheduled for Aug. 1, but Clark said Lake's attorneys will probably file a motion to dismiss before then.

Fall 2000, reports