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State backs off newspaper dispute

Published February 22, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Elections Commission says it will not again investigate a Wakulla County newspaper it once accused of being in violation of Florida election laws because it mentioned two political candidates.

In federal court Wednesday, responding to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Assistant Attorney General George Was said the state agency does not investigate newspapers and is now convinced that Wakulla Independent Reporter publisher Julia Hanway is publishing a newspaper.

Last year the Elections Commission accused Hanway of violating election laws when the first issue of her newspaper mentioned two County Commission candidates. Hanway was not fined, but the Elections Commission said she should be "on notice" that she could be charged with future violations of the law.

The commission contends that its original investigation was appropriate because Hanway failed to identify herself as publisher in the original edition.

Hanway says that was an oversight, and she has identified herself in subsequent issues published after she suspended publication for a year.

Hanway sued the commission in federal court saying the state violated her First Amendment guarantee of a free press and free speech. She wants an injunction prohibiting the state from taking further action against her.

On Wednesday, Hanway and Election Commission officials were before U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, who questioned whether the lawsuit has become moot as a result of the commission's pledge not to pursue her newspaper further.

Robert Rivas, the Tallahassee lawyer who represents Hanway, pressed the judge to issue an order to protect Hanway against "evolving definitions" of the election laws.

"I think it's pretty clear if they tried to take action against the paper at this point, I wouldn't want to be the lawyer trying to defend them," Hinkle said.

The commission put the paper out of business for a year and on the eve of trial promised never to do it again, Rivas noted.

"It's just wrong," Rivas said. "This is a classic example of something that shouldn't be countenanced by the court."

Hinkle said he will examine the commission reports before making a decision.

In November the Elections Commission dismissed another complaint against the Naples Daily News, saying newspapers are not required to treat all political candidates alike. The complaint was filed by a candidate after the newspaper left his biographical information off its Web site.

"The newspaper is free to mention your name or not to mention your name, either in its paper or on its Web site," noted Barbara Linthicum, executive director of the Elections Commission.

Lucy Morgan can be reached at 850 224-7263 or

[Last modified February 22, 2007, 01:36:17]

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