Prosecutor Coughs Up $425,000 for Violating Student’s First Amendment Rights

By December 13, 2011

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) reported yesterday that former University of Northern Colorado (UNC) student Thomas Mink has reached a settlement with former prosecutor Susan Knox in Mink’s lawsuit arising from an illegal search of his home. Settling the lawsuit, which has dragged on for many years since the 2003 incident, comes with a heavy price for the prosecutor, Knox: $425,000

We blogged in June of this year about the case, in which Knox, then a deputy district attorney, reviewed and signed a police warrant to search Mink’s home and confiscate his computer. She did so in response to complaints by UNC professor Junius Peake that Mink had libeled him in his satirical newspaper, the Howling Pig, by publishing a photo of Peake that was modified to make him look like KISS guitarist Gene Simmons and was labeled, "Mr. Junius Puke." 

As we wrote earlier this year: 

Shockingly, under Colorado law, criminal libel is committed when people "knowingly publish or disseminate, either by written instrument, sign, pictures, or the like, any statement or object tending to … impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation or expose the natural defect of one who is alive, and thereby to expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule." That law is so overbroad as to already violate the First Amendment. 

The SPLC picks up the timeline from there, and reviews the case’s path through the courts: 

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2007 that Mink lacked standing to challenge the libel statute because he was never charged under it. It allowed his Fourth Amendment claims to move forward, however, rejecting Knox’s argument that she was protected by "absolute immunity" from the lawsuit. 

On a second trip to the Tenth Circuit in 2010, the court again sided with Mink. It found that Knox was not entitled to "qualified immunity" from the suit, because the legal standards involved were clearly established at the time she signed the search warrant. 

In June, a lower court declared that Mink’s rights were violated. Federal District Court Judge Lewis Babcock held that Knox should have known the Howling Pig was protected by the First Amendment, and thus that there was no "probable cause" to issue the search warrant. 

Although her lawyers appealed to the Tenth Circuit a third time, Knox decided to settle the case before the federal appellate court could rule again. This is a win for the First Amendment, and for the time-honored practice of parody and satire. I salute Mink for standing up for his constitutional rights, even as the case dragged on for so many years. Surely, his triumph (and the decisive settlement amount) will send a clear message to some of the would-be censors out there: Violating fundamental First Amendment rights can come at a heavy price. 

I’ll let one of Mink’s attorneys, Mark Silverstein of the ACLU of Colorado, have the last word here, via the SPLC: 

"This case reaffirms that satire, parody, and expressions of opinion are fully protected by the First Amendment," Silverstein said. "Prosecutors and police cannot use Colorado’s antiquated 19th-century criminal libel statute to intimidate, threaten, or silence speakers who criticize public officials and spoof community leaders." 

Go here for the full SPLC article.