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Contempt charges, fines against journalists overturned

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    News Media Update         KENTUCKY         Newsgathering    

Contempt charges, fines against journalists overturned

  • A circuit judge failed to identify the interests behind a broad restraining order keeping a newspaper from using its name in print, an appellate court held.

May 27, 2004 — The Kentucky Court of Appeals overruled the imposition of criminal contempt charges last week against three journalists after a two-year-long battle over the right to publish using their newspaper’s decade-old name.

The (Lexington) Mountain Citizen owner Lisa Stayton, publisher Roger Smith and editor Gary Ball fought a two-year-long court battle against Inez, Ky., attorney John Triplett, who took advantage of a lapse in Stayton’s corporate registrations to appropriate corporate names.

Triplett, former chairman of the Martin County Water Board, had been criticized by the newspaper for months in stories that blamed his agency for the town’s contaminated drinking water, Ball said. Some of the stories included photographs of dirty water streaming out of local faucets.

Stayton had lost the legal right to the newspaper’s corporate names when she failed to file annual incorporation papers for her publishing company, New Wave Communication Inc., with the secretary of state in 2001. Triplett incorporated several corporations in May 2002 using variations of the newspaper’s trade names and its previous corporate publisher’s name.

Triplett filed a petition on May 21, 2002, for an injunction preventing the journalists from publishing the newspaper under his newly incorporated names, including Mountain Citizen Inc. and New Wave Communication Inc. Martin County Circuit Judge Daniel Sparks then ordered the journalists to temporarily stop publishing under the name “The Mountain Citizen” while he considered the case.

Stayton and Smith were informed of the order only five hours before deadline. They acquiesced by removing mention of New Wave Communication Inc. as the corporate publisher, but left “The Mountain Citizen” — without the “Inc.” — as the masthead, which they said they felt was consistent with the order.

In June 2002, Sparks found the three journalists guilty of criminal contempt for disobeying the order. They were each fined $500.

A three-judge panel overturned Sparks’ ruling May 21, voting 2-1 that the restraining order was unenforceable because it was too vague, failing to describe in “reasonable detail” the act restrained.

To resolve ambiguity, the court said it must look beyond the specific statements of the order to the interests it was meant to protect.

However, “it is impossible to divine from the petition . . . what legitimate interests were being safeguarded by this restraining order,” Judge John Minton Jr. wrote for the court.

Ball called Triplett’s legal maneuvering censorship “in its worse form.”

“I think time has proven that his intent was not to embark on the career path of journalism,” Ball said, “He wanted to shut us up. It backfired.”

The three journalists will not have to pay the $500 legal fine, but two years of litigation has cost the newspaper significantly more than the $1500 total fine, Ball said.

But, in his opinion, “It was well worth it.”

(Smith v. New Wave Communications Inc., Media Counsel: David E. Fleenor, Lexington) AV

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