Maryland newspaper sues over Election Day sell-out

Monday, November 29, 1999

A Maryland newspaper publisher alleges in a recent lawsuit that sheriff's deputies in St. Mary's County violated his First Amendment rights when they bought more than 3,000 copies of his weekly the day it ran unflattering stories about their boss.

An attorney for Kenneth Rossignol, publisher of St. Mary's Today, says that the deputies drove around the county early on Election Day, Nov. 3, 1998, to purchase copies of the newspaper. That day's edition included articles about Sheriff Richard Voorhaar, a Republican running for re-election, and Richard Fritz, a Republican candidate for state's attorney.

“The bottom line here is [that they were] trying to influence the outcome of the election,” attorney Alice Neff Lucan said. “That's just not the right way to do it. We've got rules around here.”

In court briefs, Lucan wrote that the deputies scoured newsstands and news racks “for the sole purpose of preventing distribution to the voting public of two news articles concerning candidates for … State's Attorney and Sheriff.” Such actions, Lucan wrote, constitute an unlawful prior restraint on the press in violation of the First Amendment.

The St. Mary's Today article about Fritz — who won his campaign for state's attorney — focused on a 24-year-old statutory rape charge. Fritz pleaded guilty in 1965 to having sex with a 15-year-old girl and received an 18-month probation.

The same edition included a story about Sheriff Voorhaar's handling of a sexual harassment complaint. Voorhaar was re-elected.

Neither Voorhaar nor Fritz returned calls for comment.

Rossignol contends in his lawsuit that both Voorhaar and Fritz helped coordinate the newspaper buyout. He also said the deputies threatened or intimidated store clerks into allowing them to buy multiple copies of the newspaper.

In published reports, Voorhaar defended the deputies, saying they were acting as private citizens when they purchased the newspapers. The deputies videotaped themselves putting quarters into news racks as they bought the papers. Those videotapes are part of an FBI criminal investigation of the situation.

Rossignol, who has published St. Mary's Today for more than a decade, announced in September that he would cease publishing a weekly edition of the newspaper. But he said he plans to continue offering an online version.