Notes on Country Journalism
By James J. Kilpatrick
Winning a Pulitzer Prize at The New York Times may be the absolute pinnacle of a newspaper career, but a case now pending in the U.S. Supreme Court suggests that country journalism may be more exciting.
The story goes back to election night in November 1998.
In St. Mary’s County, Maryland, Sheriff Richard Voorhaar was running for re-election. His friend Richard Fritz was a candidate for state’s attorney.
The county (pop. 87,721) lies 60 miles southeast of Washington, close enough to the capital for purposes of commuting, but still a nice place for small-town and country living.
Into this bucolic milieu, 15 years ago, came Kenneth C. Rossignol, a young journalist with an old tradition. He launched a weekly newspaper; St. Mary’s Today and began doing what good editors always do. He began raising hackles. He was especially critical of Voorhaar and his deputies. They complained that his “constant belittlement” continued “week, after week, after week.”
Let me pick up the story from the opinion of Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals:
“Several deputies in the sheriff’s office anticipated that the
Election Day issue of St. Mary’s Today would be critical of them and their favored candidates, particularly Voorhaar and Fritz. Over the course of a series of meetings and conversations, both on the job at the sheriff’s office and in the evening at private homes, some of the deputies formulated a plan to deal with the problem: They decided to form two teams on election day, each comprising three sheriff’s deputies, and buy out the stock of St. Mary’s Today at vending locations throughout the county.”
Sure enough, late on the night before the election, the officers set to their off-duty work. They wore plainclothes and drove their own cars, but everyone in the county knew who they were. The deputies paid for the papers with $1,000 ponied up by Voorhaar and Fritz. Around midnight, Rossignol got wind of the plot and drove through the county, attempting to resupply stores and news boxes, but to little avail:
“Defendants followed him around the county, buying up the fresh inventory as soon as it was replenished.”
One of Voorhaar’s minions wore his Fraternal Order of Police sweatshirt with the word “Sheriff” written above the county seal. Two other deputies carried their service weapons. One 7-Eleven clerk would testify that he sold his full supply of papers to the officers because they had a “real intimidating attitude.” By 7 a.m., the teams had visited roughly 40 stores and 40 news boxes and removed at least 1,300 copies of the newspaper.
Rossignol brought suit against the sheriff and his deputies, charging violation of the basic civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. 1983. District Judge William Nickerson granted summary judgment to the defendant officers: They had acted individually, he ruled, not under color of state law. Rossignol appealed to a panel of the 4th Circuit. There he won a resounding victory.
It was the sheriff’s bad luck that the panel would speak through Judge Wilkinson, who was editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot before he went on the bench. He and his colleagues had “no doubt that the seizure in this case was perpetrated under color of state law.” The defendants executed a systematic, carefully organized plan to suppress a newspaper that had criticized them.
“If we were to sanction this conduct,” said Judge Wilkinson, “we would point the way for other state officials to stifle public criticism of their policies and their performance. And we would leave particularly vulnerable this kind of paper in this kind of community. Alternative weeklies such as St. Mary’s Today may stir deep ire in the objects of their irreverence, but we can hardly say that on that account they play no useful part in the political dialogue.”
It remains to be said, deflatingly, that both Voorhaar and Fritz handily won their elections in 1998. Voorhaar retired last year; Fritz is still state’s attorney for St. Mary’s County. My guess is that when the Supreme Court gets back to work in October, their petition for review will be denied. The case doesn’t have a high-court feel, but you never know. Meanwhile, Rossignol carries on as a country editor. Believe me, it’s not a bad life at all.