Virginia couple face free-speech, petition battle over small-town radio station

Monday, October 4, 1999

An Abingdon, Va., couple trying to save a bankrupt radio station say they worry about jail time after a federal judge cited them for contempt last week for speaking out against efforts to transfer their station to a new owner.

On Sept. 27, U.S. District Judge Glen Williams ordered Craig and Rita Sutherland to stop fighting the transfer of WABN/92.7FM to Bristol Broadcasting Co., an approved buyer of the station under a bankruptcy plan. Specifically, Williams told Craig Sutherland to sign the transfer and Rita Sutherland to withdraw her petition to the Federal Communications Commission. The two risked jail time if they failed to comply.

The judge gave the couple a 48-hour deadline.

“It's incredible to me,” Rita Sutherland said. “I think what we're tangled up in shouldn't be a conflict between corporate law, bankruptcy law and First Amendment rights. From the beginning, Craig and I assumed we could appeal and that while we waited for our appeal they couldn't do anything that would mute our appeal.”

Although Craig Sutherland signed the transfer papers on Sept. 29, Rita Sutherland refused to withdraw her petition. On Sept. 30, Williams said he would wait to find her in contempt again until after he received another petition from Bristol Broadcasting.

The Sutherlands' plight stretches back more than a dozen years to when the two teachers joined with local grocer Richard Edwards to purchase a small radio station in Abingdon. But internal turmoil eventually broke apart the business partners.

After several years of squabbling, the Sutherlands won control of the station in 1992 but had assumed nearly $300,000 in debt, money owed mostly to Southern Communications, the station's former owner.

When Southern Communications threatened to foreclose on the debt, the Sutherlands filed in 1994 for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The Sutherlands claim Southern Communications has rejected their numerous payment proposals since then.

In the meantime, Southern Communications entertained other offers, finally agreeing in 1996 to an estimated $335,000 offer from Pete Nininger, owner of Bristol Broadcasting. Bristol owns nine radio stations, including three within the Bristol-Abingdon market.

Nininger didn't return calls made to his office.

In 1998, Williams approved the sale of WABN to Bristol Broadcasting and ordered the Sutherlands to transfer their FCC license to Nininger. The Sutherlands refused and continued their efforts to pay back the loan, including making a $425,000 offer to Southern Communications.

In court, officials with Southern Communications opposed the plan, saying they didn't have confidence in the Sutherlands and didn't wish to return to bankruptcy court to start new proceedings.

Last April, Williams ordered the Sutherlands to sign the transfer. When they refused, the judge turned to Edwards, their former business partner, to sign the transfer since his name still appeared on debt statements. Edwards approved the transfer.

The Sutherlands then filed appeals of Williams' orders to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court declined to hear the appeals.

Over the summer, the Sutherlands began broadcasting details about the ownership situation and encouraged listeners to write to the FCC and to U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, who represents Abingdon. One listener created a “Save WABN” Web site with some help from the Sutherlands, while others peppered the town of 7,000 with posters, bumper stickers and fliers.

During an Aug. 10 court hearing, Williams ruled that the Sutherlands, as owners of the bankrupt station, had violated bankruptcy law.

Williams said the Sutherlands demonstrated “the most contemptuous conduct by intelligent people that I've ever heard of.” He threatened the couple with jail if they didn't “purge themselves” of contempt, dismantle the Web site and stop broadcasting their disagreements.

The listener took down his Web site and the Sutherlands stopped criticizing the ownership transfer on the air.

Rita Sutherland said she resigned from the corporation so she could continue speaking out. She filed a petition with the FCC that included another petition signed by more than 1,100 residents asking that the station stay under the Sutherlands' ownership. Another 375 residents wrote letters in support of the couple.

During the Sept. 27 hearing, Williams ordered the withdrawal of Rita Sutherland's petitions and the petition from Abingdon residents.

Rebecca Glenberg, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia which is representing the Sutherlands, said “the court has to have a very strong justification when it issues an order that infringes on someone's First Amendment rights. The judge has not articulated such a reason, and he did not require Bristol (Broadcasting) to show reason.

“The First Amendment was disregarded simply because the court said the First Amendment doesn't apply,” Glenberg said.

But Glenberg said Williams also infringed on the rights of the hundreds of Abingdon residents who signed the citizen petition, the listener who created the Web site and others who passed out bumper stickers.

One resident said she felt that the judge punished Ruth Sutherland for the station's popularity in the western Virginia town.

“When I was in court … I felt so guilty for some of the things I had done,” said Marcie Barnes, chairwoman of the Appalachia Peace Education Center based in Abingdon. “I felt like [Ruth Sutherland] was being raked over the coals for actions of the community. It's like she was supposed to have control of people writing letters to the FCC, to (Rep. Rick) Boucher and for putting up signs and a Web site. She's being reprimanded for having community support.

“I don't understand it,” Barnes said. “I didn't realize that a judge could tell you that you couldn't talk to your congressman.”