Student arrested for libel challenges statute in U.S. court

COLORADO -- Thomas Mink, a University of Northern Colorado student who was arrested for criminal libel after he posted an altered photo of a professor on his Web site, has appealed to a federal appeals court to challenge the constitutionality of the state's criminal libel law.

Mink, author of the satirical Web site The Howling Pig, altered a photo of the professor to look like Gene Simmons, lead singer of KISS, and posted the photo on his site, along with a satirical biography of the professor. But Mink's computer was soon confiscated by police and Mink was arrested on the grounds that he violated the criminal libel statute.

Criminal libel statues are different from civil libel laws, which allow victims of libel to seek compensation from speakers. Criminal libel laws--which exist in 17 states--allow the state to fine or imprison speakers of defamatory statements.

Mink and the ACLU sued the City of Greeley Police and others in January 2004, alleging a violation of Mink's right to free speech. The lawsuit challenged the libel law and sought to block police from charging Mink under it.

A few days following the January 2004 confiscation, U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock approved a temporary restraining order that blocked prosecution of Mink. In the same month, the district attorney said he would not prosecute Mink under the libel law because the professor involved was considered a public figure, so the criticism was not unlawful.

In February 2004, Mink and the ACLU added the Colorado Attorney General as a defendant in the lawsuit. The city of Greeley and the detective who seized Mink's computer settled, but Mink and the ACLU wanted to continue to fight for the unconstitutionality of the criminal libel statute.

''There is no legitimate place for a criminal libel statute in a free society,'' said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.

reports, Spring 2005