(CN) – After eight years and multiple appeals, the former publisher of an online satire called the “Howling Pig” has reached a $425,000 settlement with the Colorado officials who seized his computer and accused him of felony libel for altering a photo of his college professor.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado reported the settlement this week, attributing the success to the “legal significance” of a June 2011 award of summary judgment for the publisher.
University of Northern Colorado finance professor Junius Peake called the police in 2003 after seeing altered images of himself on the online newsletter published by then-UNC student Thomas Mink and others. Peake claimed that the photographs, edited to make him look like Hitler and a member of the rock band Kiss, constituted a violation of Colorado’s criminal libel law.
Weld County prosecutor Susan Knox soon approved a warrant to search Mink’s home, and Greeley police officers seized Mink’s computer.
Mink filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Greeley, Knox and others in 2004 with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. In the end, prosecutors refused to file criminal libel charges against Mink and returned his computer under a court order.
A Denver federal judge gave Knox absolute prosecutorial immunity for her role in the seizure, but the 10th Circuit reversed that decision in 2007. U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock subsequently granted Knox’s motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, but the 10th Circuit reversed again in 2010, saying Mink had proved that the prosecutor violated his rights by approving the warrant.
“This case reaffirms that satire, parody, and expressions of opinion are fully protected by the First Amendment,” ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein said in a statement. “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.”