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Web posts spark libel complaint from politician

Oklahoma prosecutors to decide whether to press criminal charges against former mayoral candidate accused of libeling politician.

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.

Miller said police turned over statements they collected to the office of District Attorney Christopher Wilson last Thursday. A representative in Wilson's office confirmed receipt of the report but said the attorney would likely not have a chance to review it until later in the week.

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 In the last 50 years, such laws have been widely viewed as violating the First Amendment, and most states have repealed them or seen them struck down because of conflicts with the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan, which set a higher bar for their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

No criminal libel suits have ever been brought against Web sites operated by professional media outlets, according to a 2003 study by the Media Law Resource Center. A total of eight suits--or about 10 percent of all criminal libel cases--have involved Web postings by nonprofessional media. In half of those Web cases, including the three most recent ones, the charges were dropped. One of those recent cases led to a Utah criminal libel law being declared unconstitutional.

The McAlester Watercooler is billed as a spot for citizens of the small southeastern Oklahoma city (population: just shy of 18,000) "to voice their views about the ongoing city events." It also supplies detailed city council agendas and serves as a portal to other local sites. King, 56, who calls himself a "semiretired" computer consultant, set up the site on his own servers in May after an unsuccessful bid for mayor and now counts about 200 registered users.

King said in a phone interview Monday that he has not yet been contacted by authorities. "I've personally never had a conversation with Gene Stipe, so this isn't a personal vendetta of any kind," he said.

Stipe spent 53 years in the state legislature before retiring in 2003. Shortly afterward, he was convicted of federal crimes linked to illicit money funneling during a colleague's 1998 congressional campaign.

Stipe could not be reached for comment Monday. A local newspaper quoted him as saying, of King's alleged defamatory posts: "I just want it stopped. I want it to be corrected. I want him to be punished for it."