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Court rules against newspaper in mass purchasing case

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    NMU         MARYLAND         Newsgathering         Mar 5, 2002    

Court rules against newspaper in mass purchasing case

  • A federal judge ruled that a group of county officials did not violate a newspaper publisher’s civil rights after they organized an effort to purchase almost every copy of an issue that contained negative stories about them.

The publisher of a Maryland weekly lost a federal lawsuit on Feb. 21 in which he claimed a sheriff, several deputies and a former candidate for the state attorney’s office violated his constitutional rights when they attempted to purchase nearly every copy of an issue that contained unfavorable stories about them.

U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson struck down three of the six counts brought by Kenneth Rossignol, editor-in-chief and publisher of St. Mary’s Today. He dismissed the remaining counts, saying they were outside the scope of the court’s jurisdiction.

St. Mary’s County Sheriff Richard Voorhaar, one of the defendants in the case, said he is “very pleased” with the court’s decision, adding that he will “fight this thing to the Supreme Court” if necessary.

The suit revolved around the mass purchasing of an issue of Rossignol’s weekly paper due to hit newsstands on Nov. 3, 1998, the day Voorhaar was up for reelection and Richard Fritz was on the ballot for the state attorney’s office. Six deputies and two civilians, with the full knowledge and support of Voorhaar and Fritz, bought up 1,379 copies of St. Mary’s Today with the headline “Fritz Guilty of Rape” in an effort to limit the paper’s circulation for that week.

The facts of the case were not in dispute except whether the deputies were acting as law enforcement officials when they made the purchases.

Ashley Kissinger, Rossignol’s attorney, said Nickerson found that the deputies “didn’t act under the color of law, which is a requirement for conviction under the Federal Civil Rights Act.” The officers were not in uniform and did not identify themselves as policemen.

Kissinger said her client was considering an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. (4th Cir.).

Voorhaar, who was first elected sheriff in 1994, said that he has “a high respect for the media that makes an effort to let people know what’s going on in a fair manner,” but that Rossignol was “circulating poison.”

“You got a guy down here with a tabloid newspaper who, to put it mildly, disregards the truth,” Voorhaar said.

Kissinger disagrees, saying that “one of the most important things in any election is to get information to the public,” even if you don’t agree with it.

(Rossignol vs. Voorhaar; Media Counsel: Ashley Kissinger, Levine, Sullivan & Koch, Washington, D.C.) KC

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