Fugitive Minneapolis dentist and U.S. Senate candidate Jack Shepard says the Huffington Post went too far with a headline that labels him an arsonist.

He may be a convicted sex and drug offender, but he's never been convicted of arson, Shepard said in a federal lawsuit he filed Monday in St. Paul. Calling him an arsonist, he alleges, is inherently libelous.

Shepard fled the country in 1982 while facing felony arson charges connected with a fire that damaged his home and dental office. Since then, he's been working in Rome, from which he has launched several unsuccessful runs for public office in the United States. He's currently running for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

The offending headline -- "Support Jack Shepard, The Arsonist, For Congress" -- ran atop a 2010 column written by Jason Linkins. Shepard's suit says Linkins reported incorrectly that he was kicked off the ballot for Congress in 2004 for being a fugitive felon.

Though Shepard was removed from the ballot, Linkins failed to report that the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered his name restored, the suit says.

Shepard said he became aware of Linkins' column in 2011 from a now-former patient. The column has wrecked his dental practice in Rome, he said.

Linkins declined to comment Thursday. The Huffington Post did not respond to a request for comment.

"On its surface it sounds like the case could have merit," said Marshall Tanick, a Twin Cities defamation attorney.

Falsely accusing someone of a crime is libel per se, Tanick said. In such cases, he said, the law allows general damages, meaning a plaintiff does not have to prove actual losses.

Tanick said the Huffington Post could defend itself by trying to prove that Shepard, in fact, committed arson, but that's tough to do on an old case.

But Shepard would have a hard time pressing his case from Italy, he said.

"You've got to show up," Tanick said. "You can't do it by remote control."

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493