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Journalists, candidate charged with criminal defamation

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Journalists, candidate charged with criminal defamation

  • The publisher and columnist for a local newspaper and a city council candidate had criticized political officials.

March 19, 2003 — Less than one month after the state legislature decided not to repeal Kansas’s criminal defamation law, three people — two journalists and one political candidate — were charged last week with criminally defaming a local city clerk.

Baxter Spring News publisher Larry Hiatt, columnist Ron Thomas and city council candidate Charles How Jr. were summoned to appear in court to answer charges for misdemeanor counts of criminal defamation.

The charges stem from a column and an advertisement in the March 11 edition of the twice-weekly newspaper.

The column, written by Thomas, criticized City Clerk Donna Wixon and mayoral candidate Art Roberts and accused Wixon of trying to control the community.

Thomas wrote: “So with Art as mayor, and council members returned to office, here’s the picture. Those Roberts for mayor signs should be taken down, and (made) to read ‘Wixon for Mayor,’ and then we have Mayor Wixon, Wixon Springs City Council.”

The advertisement, paid for by How, also criticized Roberts and Wixon. The ad called Wixon a “hateful city clerk” and said Roberts voted to hire Wixon and increased her salary.

Roberts, who previously was on the City Council, denies hiring Wixon, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Hiatt told reporters the charges were an attempt to infringe on his free-press rights. He said Wixon and the prosecutor were using the charges as a weapon against him.

Hiatt said his summons, which arrived on Friday, was signed by Wixon.

The Kansas criminal defamation statute makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly spread false information about a person.

However, according to Hiatt, his charges, and those against Thomas and How, come under a local criminal defamation ordinance, and not the state law. Hiatt said Wixon brought the charge against him in an effort to control the upcoming election by making it look like her opponents are attacking her illegally.

Hiatt said he regularly publishes columns and letters to the editor in which negative remarks are made about Wixon.

Last year, the editor and publisher of another local newspaper were prosecuted under the Kansas state law for statements they made about Wyandotte County Mayor Carol Marinovich. David W. Carson and Edward H. Powers Jr., who produce The New Observer, were convicted of multiple counts of criminal defamation and were sentenced in November 2002 to one year of probation and fined $3,500 each.

Powers has said the prosecutions were politically motivated. He and Carson are appealing their convictions.


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© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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