Publisher Wins Press-Rights Suit
Officials Ruled Liable in '98 Incident
By Arthur Santana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page SM03
A federal judge has ruled that the St. Mary's County state's attorney, the former sheriff and six deputies are liable for civil damages for violating the First Amendment rights of a local newspaper publisher when they participated in a plan to purchase newspapers en masse to keep unflattering stories away from the public on Election Day 1998.
The ruling from the U.S. District Court in Baltimore is the latest move in the lawsuit by Kenneth C. Rossignol, publisher and editor of the St. Mary's Today tabloid, over what became known in St. Mary's as the "newspaper caper."
Rossignol published a front-page story on Election Day 1998 headlined "Fritz Guilty of Rape," detailing Republican Richard D. Fritz's 1965 conviction for carnal knowledge of a minor as well as a story about then-Sheriff Richard J. Voorhaar's handling of a sexual harassment complaint.
Fritz and Voorhaar were on the ballot. Fritz was elected to his first term as state's attorney that day, and Voorhaar was reelected sheriff.
Rossignol alleged that St. Mary's County sheriff's deputies, acting with the approval of Fritz and Voorhaar (R), went out in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 3, 1998, and purchased 1,300 or more copies of the newspaper to keep the articles from being read by voters before they went to the polls.
That, Rossignol said, was a violation of his First Amendment rights. Fritz, Voorhaar and the deputies said they did nothing wrong since they purchased the papers and were not acting as law enforcement officials.
Rossignol's lawsuit alleged that the deputies abused the power of their office by intimidating convenience store clerks into allowing them to buy the newspapers.
The deputies split into two groups, with Capt. Steven M. Doolan, Sgt. Michael R. Merican, Deputy 1st Class Harold Young in one, and Sgt. Edward Willenborg, Sgt. Lyle E. Long, Deputy 1st Class Steven Myers in the other.
Each group videotaped itself through the night buying stacks of newspapers by depositing coins into news boxes.
In January 2003, the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed an earlier District Court ruling against the newspaper. The 4th Circuit decided that Fritz, Voorhaar and the off-duty deputies had acted under color of law. In an order sending the case back to the lower court for trial, the appellate judges called it a "classic example of the kind of suppression of political criticism which the First Amendment was intended to prohibit."
Last week, U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson, whose options were largely narrowed by the appellate court's ruling, granted summary judgment in favor of Rossignol and the newspaper on claims that the defendants violated provisions of the U.S. and Maryland constitutions.
Nickerson also rejected the defendants' arguments that they were entitled to "qualified immunity" -- which shields government officials from civil liability if they do not overstep their power in the course of their duties.
Also named in the lawsuit were Daniel Alioto, the only deputy on duty on the night of the newspaper purchases, and the Board of County Commissioners.
In his May 5 ruling, Nickerson said the evidence linking Alioto to the incident is disputed and will have to be decided by a jury after a trial. The judge did grant summary judgment in favor of the Board of County Commissioners on the grounds that the main individual defendants are state employees, not county employees.
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