By Tim Farley
Red Dirt Report (with permission), May 9, 2014
As leader of the Sooner Tea Party, Gerhart has an agenda and he intends to pursue his political goals despite the cost. For Gerhart, that resulted in two felony convictions earlier this week when an Oklahoma County jury found him guilty of blackmail and violating the state’s Computer Crimes Act based on a threatening email sent to state Sen. Cliff Branan (R-Oklahoma City) in March 2013.
The jury refused to recommend any prison time. Instead, they fined Gerhart $1,000 on the blackmail conviction and gave him no sentence on the Computer Crimes Act violation.
Gerhart’s attorneys argued during the trial that his words and actions are protected by the First Amendment’s free speech provision. He also doesn’t apologize for his brash comments and behavior to Oklahoma’s politicos.
“Absolutely not,” Gerhart said, when asked if he regretted his tactless approach toward state lawmakers.
Gerhart and his legal team aren’t alone with their constitutional concerns.
Reaction to the verdicts among notable Oklahoma City attorneys was unanimous in two ways. First, they believe Gerhart’s words were too harsh, yet they support his First Amendment right to make those comments. “It was a compromised verdict,” said defense attorney David Slane. “Obviously, the jury didn’t like what he did and thought he crossed the line of advocacy and threats. At the same time, no jail time is an indication the jurors thought this is not the type of case we need to put our resources into.”
Gerhart admitted he sent the email, which demanded passage of a bill that focused on a United Nations plan. Branan, chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, refused to hear the measure.
Branan did not return a phone call for comment.
Slane questioned if the verdicts will encourage further prosecutions of people who protest a lawmaker’s decision.
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma, said the Gerhart case presents serious First Amendment issues.
Kiesel, a former Oklahoma lawmaker, said he often received threatening emails while in public office.
Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., said the Gerhart case borders on a fine line between expressions of political activity and criminal behavior.
However, Paulson agreed the verdict could have a chilling effect on people who might criticize lawmakers in the future.
Gerhart has been back at work since Wednesday’s verdict, but he and his attorneys are planning to appeal the convictions based on the “overly broad” way the blackmail statute is written.
“We needed to lose to strike this down,” the Sooner Tea Party chief said Friday. “There will be one issue on appeal and that is the law is overly broad and unconstitutional. I had every right to say what I did.”
A judicial review of Oklahoma’s blackmail law is critical for the First Amendment and its proper place in the political process, Kiesel said.
Taking the situation a step further, Kiesel suggested the unintended consequences of Gerhart’s convictions could dissuade people from making any political commentary.
Despite the convictions, Gerhart is moving forward with his political battles, fully aware all eyes will be on his future comments and actions. Gerhart wants citizen grand juries led by independent prosecutors to investigate some of Oklahoma’s lawmakers and district attorneys.
Tim Farley is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including coverage of police, courts, politics, business, education and religion. He worked as a sportswriter and news reporter at The Daily Oklahoman and as assistant city editor at the Birmingham Post-Herald in Alabama.