WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has let stand a lower court ruling that a newspaper publisher could sue St. Mary’s County officials who bought copies of the paper in bulk to keep the public from reading a negative story about the state’s attorney.
The high court’s decision not to hear the case marks a second victory for Kenneth Rossignol, publisher of St. Mary’s Today, who sued State’s Attorney Richard Fritz, then-Sheriff Richard Voorhaar and several deputies over the 1998 incident.
Fritz could not be reached for comment and the sheriff’s department said no officials were available to discuss the case Tuesday evening.
The case began on the eve of Fritz’s 1998 re-election, when the weekly newspaper ran a story that Fritz had pleaded guilty to carnal knowledge of a minor 33 years earlier, when he was a teen-ager.
The deputies and two civilians went around the county and bought nearly every copy of the newspaper as soon as it hit the stands, according to court documents.
Rossignol sued Fritz, Voorhaar and several deputies for violating his right to free speech.
“There’s no doubt whatsoever that what these folks were trying to do is prevent the publication of this story,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “They were trying to censor.”
A U.S. district judge dismissed three of Rossignol’s six counts, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in January and ordered the lower court to hear the case.
“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,” a three-judge panel of the appeals court wrote. “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.”
The county officials asked the full appeals court to review the panel’s decision, but that request was rejected. That sparked the appeal to the Supreme Court, which declined without comment Monday to hear the case.
Students have stolen college newspapers because they object to something published in them, but it is rare for public officials to buy for-profit newspapers for the same reason, Dalglish said. They usually have too thick a skin to resort to such tactics.
“You would expect someone who’s an elected official to be more mature than that,” she said. “Elected officials can’t go around intimidating newspaper reporters who do stories that are unfavorable or unflattering.”
St. Mary’s County now has a new sheriff, David Zylak. Rossignol “hopes that under the new administration, something like this wouldn’t happen,” said his attorney, Ashley Kissinger.
The high court likely refused the case because the situation happens so rarely, Dalglish said. But First Amendment advocates still watched the case closely.
Rossignol “sees himself as kind of a local government watchdog,” Kissinger said. “You always want to make people aware of things like this.”