The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

23 August 2005

Do not mock the emperor's jumpsuit

Well, this is fun:

Oklahoma prosecutors will soon weigh whether to take up criminal charges against a former mayoral candidate accused of libeling a longtime state politician on his Web forum.

In a police report filed Aug. 16, former state senator and convicted felon Gene Stipe charged that Harold King had published false information about Stipe and his family on his Web forum, the McAlester Watercooler, said Capt. Darrell Miller of the McAlester, Okla., police force. The nature of the information was not disclosed.

Okiedoke emphasizes this part of the article:

Oklahoma is among a minority of states that still have criminal libel laws in place. In the last 50 years, such laws have been widely viewed as violating the First Amendment, and most states have repealed them or seen them struck down because of conflicts with the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan, which set a higher bar for their constitutionality.

Instead, most states handle libel cases exclusively as civil matters, awarding monetary damages after weighing factors such as harm caused by the defamation. Those convicted under Oklahoma's criminal libel laws can face up to a year in a county jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both, and they can also be sued in civil court.

McAlester Councilman Greg Rock comments:

There is a part of me that wants to comment on the impending battle between our former State Senator and Harold King, but all that I will say is this: Public figures must learn to deal with certain levels of "celebrity", if I can be afforded to use that term very loosely, and the ridicule that goes with it.

Especially if they've read the actual decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. Quoting the concurring opinion by Justice Arthur J. Goldberg:

If liability can attach to political criticism because it damages the reputation of a public official as a public official, then no critical citizen can safely utter anything but faint praise about the government or its officials. The vigorous criticism by press and citizen of the conduct of the government of the day by the officials of the day will soon yield to silence if officials in control of government agencies, instead of answering criticisms, can resort to friendly juries to forestall criticism of their official conduct.

Mr Stipe, of course, is no longer a public official; however, he wields enough clout in southeastern Oklahoma to be considered part of the power structure despite being stripped of his office, and it's hard to characterize his reaction as anything but "How dare they say anything about me?"

Posted at 7:34 AM to Soonerland

He is still a public figure, so the standard for libeling him is much, much higher from a constituitonal stand point.

Posted by: J. M. Branum at 4:48 PM on 23 August 2005

That's what I'm thinking. And if it ever goes to trial, the Oklahoma law may be struck down as a result.

Posted by: CGHill at 5:52 PM on 23 August 2005

Oklahoma also has a sort of anti-SLAPP statute (SLAPP being the acronym for strategic lawsuits against public participation). It's Oklahoma Statutes, Title 12, Section 1443.1, and it exempts from certain communications from punishment as libel, including "a fair and true report of any legislative or judicial or other proceeding authorized by law, or anything said in the course thereof, and any and all expressions of opinion in regard thereto, and criticisms thereon, and any and all criticisms upon the official acts of any and all public officers, except where the matter stated of and concerning the official act done, or of the officer, falsely imputes crime to the officer so criticized."

Posted by: Michael Bates at 2:04 AM on 24 August 2005