A St. Mary's County newspaper publisher will receive $435,000 in a settlement of a lawsuit alleging that the county's current state's attorney, a former sheriff and six deputies violated the First Amendment when they participated in a plan to keep unflattering stories away from voters on Election Day 1998.
State's Attorney Richard D. Fritz (R), who was elected that day despite the highly critical article about him, said last week that he has already personally paid $10,000 to settle the case. However, Fritz said he admits no wrongdoing in the episode, which became known as the "newspaper caper."
Kenneth C. Rossignol, publisher and editor of St. Mary's Today, hailed the case's settlement as a victory for the First Amendment.
(Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
The county's insurer, the Local Government Insurance Trust, which provides joint self-insurance programs for local governments in Maryland, agreed to pay Kenneth C. Rossignol, publisher and editor of the St. Mary's Today tabloid, $425,000 to settle the lawsuit, St. Mary's County announced.
The settlement, which was made public Wednesday, ends any further litigation in connection with the incident. The agreement protects the deputies and their families from any further lawsuits or personal liability, a county spokeswoman said.
In May 2004, a federal judge ruled that Fritz, then-Sheriff Richard J. Voorhaar (R) and six deputies were liable for civil damages for violating Rossignol's First Amendment rights when they drove around the county trying to buy all the copies of St. Mary's Today, which featured a front-page story detailing Fritz's conviction as a teenager of carnal knowledge of a minor.
Fritz, the county and the other defendants had appealed that ruling. Their appeal will be dismissed as part of the settlement.
Rossignol, who said his 15-year-old weekly newspaper has about 25,000 readers, hailed the settlement as a victory for the First Amendment.
"It reaffirms what the court has said, which is . . . that only the public can decide whether or not they want to read a newspaper," Rossignol said. "It can't be denied to them, and the right to publish and distribute the newspaper can't be denied to me. That's our First Amendment right."
Seth Berlin, a Washington lawyer who represented Rossignol, said the settlement is "a victory in the cause of free speech and for the rights of the citizens of the county to choose what they want to read without interference by public officials."
But Fritz said his agreement to the settlement was less a matter of right and wrong than it was a matter of dollars and cents.
"My attorney said, 'Hey look, if we keep litigating, it's going to minimally cost you $50,000,' " Fritz said. "This case did not come down to who's right and who's wrong. It came down solely to an issue of how much attorney's fees are going to have be paid. I can't afford to pay $50,000 to keep litigating an issue."
Fritz said the case was settled with no one admitting wrongdoing. "I still don't admit any wrongdoing," Fritz said, adding that he paid the $10,000 about two weeks ago.
The settlement marks the final chapter of the "newspaper caper," which began when Rossignol published a front-page story on Election Day 1998 that was headlined "Fritz Guilty of Rape" and that detailed Fritz's 1965 conviction for carnal knowledge of a minor as well as a story about Voorhaar's handling of a sexual harassment complaint.
(In 1965, when he was 18, Fritz pleaded guilty to carnal knowledge of a minor, a misdemeanor, in an incident involving a 15-year-old girl. Fritz has maintained that his sexual encounter with the girl was consensual. However, under Maryland law, a 15-year-old was not considered legally competent to consent to sex.)