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Appeals court reverses decision in newspaper-seizure case

By The Associated Press

01.21.03

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BALTIMORE — Local officials in Maryland violated the First Amendment when they tried to suppress distribution of a weekly publication that had criticized them, a federal appeals panel ruled on Jan. 16.

The three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal judge's decision to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the publication's owner. The panel sent the case back to U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

"If we were to sanction this conduct, we would point the way for other state officials to stifle public criticism of their policies and their performance," chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote.

St. Mary's Today, which mostly serves southern Maryland, had reported critically on local public officials, including St. Mary's County Sheriff Richard Voorhaar and his deputies. The publication also criticized a friend of Voorhaar, Richard Fritz, who was a candidate for St. Mary's County state's attorney in the November 1998 election.

Sheriff's deputies believed the paper would be critical of Voorhaar and Fritz on Election Day and organized an effort to buy the paper's whole run, according to court records.

On Election Day, the paper reported — accurately — on a crime Fritz had been convicted of more than 30 years earlier. Under the headline "Fritz Guilty of Rape," the paper reported that Fritz and three other men had pleaded guilty to carnal knowledge of a 15-year-old girl in 1965. Fritz, who was 18 at the time, was given probation and a suspended sentence.

The night before the election, six off-duty sheriff's deputies in plain clothes drove around the county, buying the newspapers from newsboxes and local stores, according to court records. Both Voorhaar and Fritz supported and took part in the mass purchase, court records say. The deputies ended up removing about 1,300 copies of the paper's 6,500-copy print run.

"We are very gratified that the court of appeals saw this for what it plainly was, and that is the most basic violation of First Amendment rights that you can possibly imagine," Lee Levine, an attorney who represented the paper, said on Jan. 16.

Fritz, who is state's attorney for the county, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Voorhaar, who has since retired, could not be reached for comment.

Related

The big buy: a new way to censor newspapers
By Ken Paulson Sheriff's deputies may learn you can't silence critics by paying for end-run around the Constitution.  02.09.03

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