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Officers' mass-purchase of newspapers violated publisher's rights

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Officers’ mass-purchase of newspapers violated publisher’s rights

  • A U.S. District Court judge affirmed a newspaper publisher’s claims after a federal appeals court held that nine public officials violated his civil rights.

May 6, 2004 — A federal judge in Maryland reversed his own ruling from two years ago, holding yesterday that a group of public officials violated a publisher’s First Amendment rights when they purchased and threw away all copies of a weekly newspaper published the night before a local election in 1998.

Judge William M. Nickerson of U.S. District Court in Baltimore reheard the case after the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) overturned his decision in January 2003. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in that appeal.

Kenneth Rossignol, publisher of St. Mary’s Today , brought suit against State’s Attorney Richard Fritz, former Sheriff Richard Voorhaar and seven deputies after they rounded up more than 1,300 copies of the newspaper — from approximately 40 stores — the night before a local election in November 1998. The deputies paid for the newspapers and were dressed in casual clothes; they still carried their firearms and were recognized by several vendors.

The deputies, who acted in concert with Fritz and Voorhaar, objected to the newspaper’s unfavorable coverage of Fritz, who was running for St. Mary’s state’s attorney in 1998. Voorhaar was running for reelection as sheriff. Both men won their races.

Fritz was defeated last month in an election for a circuit court judgeship.

In hearing the case for a second time, Judge Nickerson rejected the officials’ claims of qualified immunity and found that the Fourth Circuit’s ruling “clearly determined that Rossignol’s First Amendment rights were infringed by defendants’ conduct.”

In addition, Nickerson ruled that the officials violated the Maryland Constitution, illegally interfered with Rossignol’s business relations, and engaged in a civil conspiracy.

A major point of contention in the lawsuit was whether the officials acted “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. Nickerson originally said the officials were not, but changed his mind in accordance with the appellate court ruling.

“With the benefit of the Fourth Circuit’s contrary determination . . . this court can now only conclude that this case falls into that category of actions taken under color of law,” Nickerson held.

The last remaining issue to be determined is the amount of Rossignol’s damages, which will be decided at a trial scheduled for December.

(Rossignol v. Voorhaar; Media Counsel: Ashley Kissinger, Levine, Sullivan, Koch and Schulz, Washington, D.C., Alice Neff Lucan, Washington, D.C.) KM

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