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Mass purchase of newspapers violates law

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Mass purchase of newspapers violates law

  • A federal appeals court ruled that officials who bought out Election Day newspapers acted “under color of law,” in violation of the publisher’s civil rights.

Jan. 16, 2003 — The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) reversed the decision of a district court today, ruling in favor of a Maryland weekly newspaper whose Election Day edition was completely bought out by government officials in 1998.

The court said that St. Mary’s County, Md., Sheriff Richard Voorhaar and his subordinates violated the civil rights of the newspaper, St. Mary’s Today, when they bought stores out of stock of the newspaper the night before an election. The issue contained an unfavorable story about a candidate who was supported by the sheriff.

The court said the officials’ actions were a “classic example” of government censorship.

“In suppressing criticism of their official conduct and fitness for office on the very day that voters were heading to the polls, defendants did more than compromise some attenuated or penumbral First Amendment right; they struck at its heart,” the court said.

Several officers dressed in casual clothing went to roughly forty stores the night before a local election in November 1998. They purchased more than 1,300 copies of St. Mary’s Today, essentially depleting the stock of the newspaper in the county.

Evidence showed that the officers conducted the mass purchase in retaliation for the newspaper’s negative coverage of Sheriff Voorhaar and other local candidates.

“We don’t believe in blasphemy being published, so we’re buying them all,” one deputy stated.

St. Mary’s Today admitted to publishing, on a continual basis, “constant belittlement” and “scandalous things” about the sheriff’s office, according to the court.

While the facts of the case were largely undisputed, the parties differed over whether the officers were acting “under color of law” when they executed the mass purchase. A government official is acting “under color of law” when he purports to be performing official duties.

An official violates federal law when, acting under color of law, he infringes upon a citizen’s civil rights.

In a strongly worded opinion, the appeals court said the officers clearly had acted under color of law when they bought out the newspapers.

“Defendents executed a systematic, carefully-organized plan to suppress the distribution of St. Mary’s Today,” the court said. “And they did so to retaliate against those who questioned their fitness for public office and who challenged many of them in the conduct of their official duties … The fact that these law enforcement officers acted after hours and after they had taken off their badges cannot immunize their efforts to shield themselves from adverse comments and to stifle public scrutiny of their performance.”

The officers carried firearms and were recognized by vendors as police deputies. Witnesses testified that the officers intimidated store workers into selling the entire stock of the newspaper.

“The incident in this case may have taken place in America, but it belongs to a society much different and more oppressive than our own,” the court said.

The officers should have brought a defamation action if they thought the newspaper’s reports were untrue, the court said.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the appeals court in support of St. Mary’s Today.

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

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© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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