Editor's note: On May 6, 2004, Judge Nickerson reversed his original ruling, stating in accordance with the 4th Circuit that publisher Kenneth Rossignol’s “First Amendment rights were infringed” by the buying up of the newspapers and that the buy-up had violated the Maryland Constitution as well. A trial to determine Rossignol’s damages is scheduled for December.
BALTIMORE The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand an appeals court's ruling in favor of a newspaper that accused St. Mary's County officials of trying to buy all the copies of an edition that contained an embarrassing story.
The high court refused without comment to hear the case, sending it back to U.S. District Judge William Nickerson in Baltimore, whose original ruling was overturned by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Publisher Kenneth Rossignol said county officials, including the now-retired sheriff and the current state's attorney, violated the weekly paper's First Amendment rights by organizing an effort to buy out the entire 1998 Election Day edition. The edition contained a story about a 1965 rape charge against state's attorney Richard Fritz, who was seeking election.
"The 4th Circuit's message was clear," said attorney Seth Berlin, who represents the newspaper. "Public officials who either censor or retaliate against news articles critical of the way they do their job trample the rights of both newspapers and their readers."
Daniel Karp, an attorney for the county officials, said he expects a jury to hear the matter after Nickerson reviews the case. The case hadn't yet been listed on Nickerson's docket, a court official said yesterday.
"The bottom line is that nothing definitive has been decided," Karp said. "It's still going to be up to a jury to determine whether, number one, the officers really acted under color of law and ... whether this is really a constitutional violation at all."
The term "color of law" refers to whether officials were either acting or pretending to act in their official capacity, Karp said. Karp maintains the officials acted as private citizens when they bought the papers.
St. Mary's Today, which serves southern Maryland, had reported critically on local government and public officials, including former St. Mary's County Sheriff Richard Voorhaar, his deputies, and Fritz, a friend of Voorhaar.
"I suppose that a jury, once it hears all the facts, will find everyone not liable," said Fritz, who's in his second term as state's attorney. "We're certainly ready to meet them in court any time."
On Election Day in 1998, the paper reported in a front page headline, "Fritz Guilty of Rape."
Fritz and three other men had pleaded guilty to carnal knowledge of a 15-year-old girl in 1965, records show. Fritz, who was 18 at the time and received a suspended 18-month sentence, said yesterday that the sex was consensual and he hadn't known the girl's age.
On the night before the 1998 election, six off-duty sheriff's deputies in plainclothes drove around the county, buying newspapers from news boxes and stores, according to court records.
Two deputies carried their service weapons with them. By 7 a.m., they had been to about 40 stores and 40 boxes, removing about 1,300 copies of the paper's 6,500 print run, court records said.
One store clerk testified that he sold the full supply of papers to the defendants because he knew they were police officers and they had a "real intimidating attitude."
The newspaper, owned by Island Publishing Co., sued in November 1999, alleging violations of the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments. A message left yesterday by The Associated Press at the offices of St. Mary's Today wasn't returned.