Regulating rudeness: why insults aren’t a crime

Sunday, December 1, 2002

Always count to 10 before you upload.

Just ask the 16-year-old Utah high school student who spent seven days in a youth detention center after posting intemperate comments about a school principal and faculty members on his home Web site.

Apparently angered by some events at Milford High School, the young man described his principal as a “town drunk” and disparaged a number of teachers, describing one as “possibly addicted to speed or some other narcotic.”

The student’s posted remarks were insulting, offensive and sophomoric, the kind of conduct that would draw a grounding by most parents or even a lawsuit by the ridiculed parties.

Not content with those options, Beaver County Attorney Leo Kannell instead charged the young man with a crime, prosecuting him for violating an obscure 1876 law prohibiting intentional and malicious statements that damage someone’s reputation.

So-called “criminal libel” charges are rarely heard of these days and with good reason. They’re a carryover from the days when people would shoot each other in the street over a perceived insult. This archaic law was intended to keep the peace.

Today these kinds of insulting statements are handled in civil cases. If someone has damaged your reputation, you can sue him or her for damages — far more satisfying in the long run than pulling a gun.

The U.S. Supreme Court has established special requirements for public officials who want to sue, however. Recognizing that a democracy depends on being able to criticize those in power, the Court concluded in 1964 that a public official suing for libel must prove that the person making a false and defamatory statement had to actually know it was false or have a “reckless disregard” for the truth.

That decision gave the Utah Supreme Court the guidance it needed to toss out the 16-year-old student’s conviction. The law simply didn’t provide enough constitutional protection.

The upshot is that nobody won:

  • The student can’t be convicted of criminal libel under the 1876 law, but the never-say-die prosecutor’s office also charged him with violating a 1973 law.
  • Whether that prosecution will proceed, though, is still in question. Prosecutor Kannell was defeated in his bid for re-election.

Why all of this zeal directed toward a student making insulting remarks? It’s not an isolated incident.

There’s an increasing temptation for school administrators to try to control the speech of students off school grounds, particularly when unpalatable viewpoints are posted on private Web sites. Sarcastic and cutting comments that were once shared over lunch in the cafeteria now get wider distribution via the Internet. Somewhere in that process, school administrators — and occasionally prosecutors — forget that students are also citizens who enjoy their own civil liberties. It’s not just a matter of dusting off a 126-year-old law.

The principal in this case actually used the legal system as intended, filing a civil suit, which was settled in 2001. Presumably, he received something for his troubles.

For their parts, both the student and prosecutor received a little education. The student learned that the right of free speech comes with responsibility, while the prosecutor was reminded that the Constitution also protects 16-year-olds.

In a country founded on freedom, we give all citizens — regardless of age — remarkable latitude in criticizing public officials. That criticism has limits, but the underlying principles can give voice to the unheard. It’s not always pretty, but it does make us one special nation.

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