A federal appeals court yesterday reinstated a lawsuit against seven St. Mary's County sheriff's deputies and others accused of scheming to violate the First Amendment right of a local newspaper. The deputies have acknowledged buying copies of the paper en masse on Election Day 1998 to prevent people from reading an article critical of a candidate for state's attorney.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit overturns a February ruling by a U.S. District Court judge in Greenbelt. The defendants can ask the full court to reverse the panel's decision.

The lawsuit was filed by Kenneth C. Rossignol, publisher of St. Mary's Today, against the sheriff's office, the deputies, State's Attorney Richard D. Fritz (R), a former sheriff and the county.

The incident was "a classic example of the kind of suppression of political criticism which the First Amendment was intended to prohibit," Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in the appeals court opinion.

In the case known in St. Mary's as the "newspaper caper," the seven deputies bought 1,379 copies of St. Mary's Today to keep negative articles about Fritz and then-Sheriff Richard J. Voorhaar (R) from being read by voters before they went to the polls on Nov. 3, 1998, according to depositions.

That edition of the paper carried a front-page article headlined "Fritz Guilty of Rape," which reported a 1965 guilty plea the candidate entered to a charge of carnal knowledge of a minor. The paper also carried an article about Voorhaar's handling of a sexual harassment complaint.

Fritz and Voorhaar have acknowledged in depositions that they approved the idea. Fritz said he told the deputies that buying up the newspapers was legal, and Voorhaar donated $500 to the effort, according to the depositions.

Voorhaar, who has since retired, won reelection to a second term that year, and Fritz won his first term. He is now in his second term.

While buying the papers, the deputies wore civilian clothes, but two of them had department-issued guns strapped to their waists, according to the depositions.

A clerk at a 7-Eleven store said in a deposition that the deputies had "a real intimidating attitude" and made it "real apparent that they could make my life here a living hell" if he did not sell them all the store's copies of the paper.