MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

April 2, 2013

3 officials sue Claremore paper

— CLAREMORE — District Attorney Janice Steidley and two of her assistants have filed a libel lawsuit against The Daily Progress and the paper’s publisher, editor and a reporter.

Steidley and Assistant District Attorneys David Iski and Sean McConnell claimed the paper’s news coverage and editorial opinion of their official activities falsely accused them of criminal conduct.

The suit was filed Thursday in Rogers County District Court by attorney Joel L. Wohlgemuth of Tulsa against The Daily Progress, Publisher Bailey Dabney, editor Randy Cowling and reporter Salesha Wilken.

Dabney called the lawsuit an attempt to intimidate the paper from reporting about activities by Steidley and her assistants.

 “This is an effort to muzzle our right to report on and opine on public issues important to the citizens of Rogers County,” he said. “We will vigorously defend that right.”

Mark Thomas, the executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said that when public officials strike out legally against newspapers doing their job, it should raise red flags with the public.

Libel suits by public officials are rare because a landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision requires them to prove that any alleged defamatory statements were made with actual malice, meaning that the news outlet published the statements yet knew they were false or had serious doubts as to their truth.

The plaintiffs listed two news stories and two editorial columns, contending that each contained false statements. However, the suit does not specify which statements are alleged to be false and defamatory.

A Feb. 10 Daily Progress story quoted Pryor police detective James Willyard about a meeting he had with Steidley over a political statement he made on his personal Facebook page, and a Feb. 19 story quoted the mother of a juvenile rape victim who criticized McConnell’s handling of the case.

The two opinion columns were published last year.

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