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State says newspaper (or is it?) breaks law

A woman's writings on local government stir voting officials, who stir the ACLU.

By LUCY MORGAN
Published October 20, 2006


CRAWFORDVILLE - When is a newspaper not a newspaper? When the Florida Elections Commission says so.

In legal arguments for why a little paper in Wakulla County violated election law, the state quotes Alice in Wonderland: "When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

They've gone through the looking glass and into federal court, with the ACLU taking up for the tiny Wakulla Independent Reporter and its one-woman reporting/writing/photography/printing staff.

The state says the Reporter is masquerading as a newspaper, that it's the same as a political flier that a candidate or committee might send to your mailbox.

The ACLU says the state is violating the First Amendment guarantees of a free press and free speech. Says Howard Simon of the Florida ACLU: "The FEC should be concentrating its efforts on running a smooth and problem-free election instead of limiting the free speech of a journalist."

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Wakulla is one of Florida's smallest counties, a marvel of nature with freshwater springs, lush woodlands and a lightly developed coastline. More than half of its land lies inside the Apalachicola National Forest and the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge.

But state government workers and land developers are descending into the woodlands. From 1980 to 2005, the population jumped from slightly more than 10,000 to nearly 27,000.

Julia Hanway started her publication in fall 2004 as development pressures on the Panhandle county escalated.

She owns a small design and marketing firm and designs and writes magazines. It wasn't a big step to turn her talents to publishing a newspaper.

She grew up in nearby Panama City, the daughter of an Episcopalian minister. Having watched her hometown struggle with massive growth along its beaches, Hanway fears that Wakulla is not adequately dealing with growth and development.

Now 54 and a resident of Wakulla for more than 30 years, Hanway wants the area to retain its identity and rich natural resources instead of turning into a bedroom community for folks who drive to work in Tallahassee.

For years she was content to serve on committees that worked on school safety, courthouse beautification and other benign projects.

Now she's in the middle of a political hornet's nest stirred up by her writing about polluted beaches, an election day attack on a Republican county commissioner and developments that allow the installation of eight to 10 septic tanks an acre.

"I'm not sure how tough I am," Hanway said. "I've gone from planting flowers in front of the courthouse to this."

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The move from flowers to words began about three years ago, when Hanway met Sid Torbit, a retired investigator for Florida's auditor general. She admired how he could dive into documents and analyze the county budget and other decisions.

Torbit died of complications related to leukemia in early 2004. Seven months later, Hanway cranked up her printing press for her first edition. She dedicated the newspaper they had jointly discussed to Torbit, and raised money in his memory to keep it going.

She says the local weekly, the Wakulla News, was not adequately addressing budget and growth management problems.

"I've seen how ads control the news media," Hanway said. "When you have a paper sustained by advertising, they will print or not print what the local business community wants."

At her own expense, she printed and mailed the first edition to about 11,000 county residents. It featured stories about a critical audit of county finances, increases in the county budget, a proposal to sell some of the county's water and the coming of a new Wal-Mart.

She named the county commissioners who voted for budget increases and other issues but did not endorse or oppose any candidate in an election that was about six weeks away.

One of the County Commission candidates she named lost. Another won by only 63 votes.

It didn't take long for a local retiree, Walter Wurster, to file a complaint with the Florida Elections Commission. He accused the newspaper of violating campaign laws that require electioneering committees to register and report expenditures.

Elections officials opened an investigation.

Suddenly Hanway was fighting for her newspaper's life. She hired Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron and has spent more than $10,000 in a two-year battle with elections officials.

Commission investigators compared the content of the Independent Reporter to the weekly newspaper and accused the Reporter of focusing on a single topic - growth and development - and said she "indicts" the county officials.

Elections officials decided not to pursue charges but put Hanway on notice that she was violating the law and could face fines.

In a lawsuit in federal court, ACLU attorney Robert Rivas says the state's action is not only dumb - if anyone had thought about it, they wouldn't have acted - but it also violates the First Amendment.

Barbara Linthicum, executive director of the Elections Commission, argues that the Wakulla Independent Reporter fails to meet the definition of a newspaper and must comply with election laws. Commission investigators noted that the paper does not contain obituaries, ads from local businesses, weddings and engagements or other items normally found in a newspaper.

In legal arguments, the state uses the Alice in Wonderland quotation to say that Hanway calling it a newspaper does not make it one.

Hanway had planned to publish four times a year but suspended publication after three issues because of the investigation. She resumed publication last month with an edition critical of the county's polluted beaches, tax hikes and the county's failure to approve a tax break for Wakulla citizens on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The established newspaper has not come to her defense. The Wakulla News sides with the Elections Commission.

In an editorial published Oct. 5, the Wakulla News said Hanway's contention that her newspaper is "not a tool to influence voters, is simply disingenuous."

Hanway says she is cheered by the response and donations to the Torbit Memorial Fund from people who like what she is doing, and she hopes to publish quarterly or even monthly.

"I'll do it because I feel like it's important," Hanway said. "These are the things people aren't talking about."

Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.