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.
DA 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 the Rogers County District Court by attorney Joel L. Wohlgemuth of Tulsa. Defendants include The Daily Progress, publisher Bailey Dabney, editor Randy Cowling and reporter Salesha Wilken.
Dabney said the lawsuit was an attempt to intimidate The Daily Progress from reporting about activities by the district attorney 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,” said Dabney. “We will vigorously defend that right.”
Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said when public officials strike out legally against newspapers doing their job, it should raise red flags with the public.
“The role of a newspaper is to speak truth to power, and to bark when they see or hear something alarming,” said Thomas. “Citizens need an active newspaper that writes editorials and columns to keep them informed about actions of people in power.”
Thomas added: “Hopefully, citizens of Rogers County will begin to pay careful attention to the deeds of county officials, and the prosecutors that advise them.”
Libel suits by public officials are rare because a landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision requires them to prove any alleged defamatory statements were made with actual malice, meaning the news outlet published the statements knowing they were false or having serious doubts as to their truth.
DA Steidley and her assistants listed two news stories and two editorial columns in their lawsuit, contending each of them contained false statements. However, the lawsuit does not specify which statements they claim were false and defamatory.
A Feb. 10 Daily Progress story quoted Detective James Willyard of the Pryor Police Department about a meeting with DA 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 criticizing McConnell's handling of the case.
The two opinion columns were published last year. An Aug. 19 column criticized Iski's role in advising county commissioners on conducting public business, and a Nov. 15 column took issue with the way Iski and DA Steidley handled complaints of bid-splitting violations by county commissioners Kirt Thacker and Mike Helm. Both columns were written by editor Cowling and appeared on the paper's opinion page.
The lawsuit claims the “acts of defendants have directly and proximately caused damage to plaintiffs' reputations and careers.”
DA Steidley and her assistants asked the court for both actual and punitive damages plus attorney fees. The suit did not say if attorney Wohlgemuth is being paid to pursue the libel action with public or private funds.