Tom Mink on $425K settlement in Howling Pig/"Junius Puke" case
Update: Yesterday marked exactly eight years since officers in Greeley arrived at the home that then-UNC student Tom Mink shared with his mom, confiscating his computer and more because of complaints about the way he'd portrayed a professor in his fledgling Internet publication, The Howling Pig. And it also corresponded with news that the complaint over this violation of Mink's rights had finally been settled in his favor, to the tune of $425,000. Not that the currently out-of-work plaintiff is suddenly rich.
According to Mink, who still lives in the Greeley area, the vast majority of the total will be going to assorted ACLU lawyers who kept the case alive for the better part of a decade. His share is $25,000 -- a figure arrived at by trying to calculate his losses from the police and prosecutorial action against him. During the negotiations, "they were like, 'Did you have any hospital bills? Psychiatrist bills?' And I said, 'No, but I probably had quite a few bar tabs.' So the amount's pretty fair."
Moreover, he's already got the sum earmarked for an important purchase. "I'm buying a car," he says, "because my engine blew up."
Mink never would have guessed the case would have dragged out for so long. "I remember talking with Mark" -- Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado's legal director -- "and he said, 'Well, these sorts of things usually work out in a month or so.' But then it kept going and going and going. I think somebody let slip that this was actually the longest-running case still on the Colorado ACLU's docket. When I heard that, I thought, 'Oh, crap.'"
In the beginning, Mink's main goal was to get rid of the Colorado criminal libel statute, "but that fell by the wayside a few years ago," he notes. "The court said I didn't have standing on the First Amendment part of the case. And the Weld County DA's office said, 'Of course we would never have charged anybody under this terribly antiquated law -- but it absolutely still needs to be there.'"
He feels otherwise. "It's very hard to litigate, because they don't usually charge people with it -- they threaten to charge people with it, and they investigate people on it, and they serve search warrants and basically scare the shit out of you. It's just obnoxious intimidation, which they unfortunately tend to use on loudmouth, obnoxious high school and college kids."
He happily cops to having fallen into the latter category. When he looks back at The Howling Pig, he sees the occasional clever turn of phrase, and he enjoys thinking about the times he shared with buddies putting it together -- but he laughingly admits that a lot of it sucks.
Be that as it may, he believes strongly that the satiric content aimed at Professor Junius Peake, portrayed as "Junius Puke," was constitutionally protected speech, and he remains upset at the way the case was handled. "I was looking at a year in jail and up to a $100,000 fine or something like that. And in retrospect, probably no DA was dumb enough to actually file charges and take this kind of thing to court. But they probably would have dragged their feet for six months and then given me my computer back in pieces and said, 'Go on your way -- but first erase your website.'"
Instead, he's now got the means to get himself back on the road -- something that he hopes will help him in his present circumstances.
"Most recently, I was in AmeriCorps VISTA, but I'm sort of between things now," he says. "I've been looking for stuff within walking distance of West Greeley and been doing some freelance writing online, like every other single, unemployed person with a college degree."
What a difference eight years make. Look below for our earlier coverage.
Original item, 12:35 p.m. December 12: Back in December 2003, the Ault-Colorado home onetime UNC student Thomas Mink shared with his mom was raided by police -- because he'd satirized a UNC professor named Junius Peake as "Junius Puke" in his self-published newsletter, The Howling Pig.
Ridiculous? Perhaps. But definitely expensive. Because after a nearly eight year legal battle, the case has been settled in Mink's favor to the tune of $425,000.
On the Pig's home page..., a disclaimer differentiates Puke, who's seen wearing Gene Simmons makeup, from [Junius] Peake, the 72-year-old Monfort Distinguished Professor of Finance at UNC's Monfort College of Business, and a nationally recognized expert on microstructure; he's appeared on National Public Radio and other major news organs. Nonetheless, a second picture of Puke that, like the first, is a doctored rendering of a Peake glossy, shows him sporting a tiny mustache that the professor interpreted as a nod to Adolf Hitler when he saw a copy of the Pig at UNC last fall. "How would you like it if someone sent out a newsletter likening you to Hitler?" he asks. "I lived through the Hitler era. I had friends who died then. To me, that was the worst thing."
The rest of the portrayal frosted Peake, too, prompting him to express his frustration to the Weld County District Attorney's Office. The article continues:
Peake says DA representatives then brought in the cops under Colorado's criminal-libel statute, a law declaring that published statements "tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or to impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation or expose the natural defects of one who is alive" may be considered a felony. Conviction carries a possible two years in the pokey and a $100,000 fine.
ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein picks up the tale from there.
"A search warrant was obtained to search Tom Mink's home for evidence of the felony of criminal libel," he notes. "Police had a warrant to authorize them to basically take any writings in the house, whether in paper or electronic form, then carted off his computer and all his electronic files, including articles in progress for the next issue."
As documented in the next week's Message column, the charges against Mink were dropped soon after he reached out to the ACLU -- but the case lived on as a way to attack Colorado's criminal libel statute. As Mink wrote in an e-mail at the time, "I think the thing should be taken off the books one way or another. The possibility of the legislature taking that on during this session has been raised and I think that may affect how we move forward with the suit on the constitutionality of the law. But either way, I hope to do what I can to get rid of such an antiquated, piece-of-crap law that can be used so easily to stifle free speech."
"Junius Puke" with 'stache.
Page down to read more about criminal libel and the settlement.