Free Press Fracas In New Jersey p.14

By: Dorothy Giobbe Weekly newspaper files First Amendment lawsuit; accuses mayor
of destroying copies; mayor calls paper a political sheet sp.

A NEW JERSEY newspaper claims the mayor of Elizabeth has organized a conspiracy to deprive the weekly of its First Amendment rights, according to a lawsuit filed recently.
The suit, initiated in U.S. District Court in Newark, alleges that Mayor J. Christian Bollwage repeatedly has organized and participated in efforts to seize and destroy copies of the Elizabeth Reporter. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey on behalf of the Reporter.
Bollwage spokesman Sebastian D'Elia said the mayor intends to answer the newspaper's charges with a countersuit.
According to the Reporter's lawsuit, Bollwage and his associates have confiscated and destroyed bundles of the Reporter on at least five occasions. The newspaper prints about 7,000 copies each week and has a cover price of 25?, although it is distributed for free in convenience stores and other local outlets.
Editors at the Reporter contend the newspaper has been targeted by the mayor because of critical coverage of the administration.
The two-year-old Reporter routinely blasts the mayor's policies and a bias against the administration is evident in many of its news stories and editorials.
Local political figures also are involved with the Reporter. Robert Jaspan, a city councilman who ran an unsuccessful campaign against Bollwage in the 1992 Democratic mayoral primary, currently is listed on the Reporter's masthead as a volunteer member of the production staff. The newspaper's offices are housed in a building Jaspan owns.
Sam Arena, editor, said the Reporter is filling a void that was created when the Daily Journal, Elizabeth's only daily newspaper, closed in 1992.
"In light of the demise of the daily newspaper, we saw a need for some kind of publication to keep the city informed and to reflect the opinions and comments of the community," Arena said.
"There is minimal coverage of Elizabeth in other newspapers," Arena added. "When they do cover it, they print press releases from the officials. Our mission is to monitor government, bring news to people and to comment on it."
Mayor Bollwage contends that the Reporter is nothing but a political sheet that unfairly is trying to bill itself as an objective newspaper. The sole aim of the Reporter, Bollwage believes, is to bring down his administration by all means, fair or foul.
In a statement, Bollwage said, "The Elizabeth Reporter is a political publication and does not represent a source of legitimate news. Instead, the publication is nothing more than a camouflage for political candidates and officeholders and serves as their political mouthpiece."
In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, the mayor didn't deny destroying the newspapers. "The paper is free. You see signs that say 'take one,' " he said. " . . . no one says you can take only one. You can take as many as you like."
Other politicians are not reticent about criticizing the newspaper. A state senator was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the Reporter "is disgusting and revolting and anybody that throws it in the garbage is performing a community service."
William Volinte, a lawyer with the Newark law firm of Reitman Parsonnet who is assisting the ACLU, said that even if the Reporter has a strident editorial bias, the newspaper unequivocally is covered by the guarantee of a free press.
Regarding the protections afforded by the First Amendment, "the ACLU sees no difference between a political propaganda sheet and a newspaper," Volinte said.
"In the opinion of the ACLU, political propaganda papers are what the First Amendment is designed to protect. It's what we fought a revolution over," Volinte added.
"Newspapers can be and are biased. Most reporters and newspapers have biases and slants," he said. "That's what the First Amendment protects. The mayor cannot physically suppress the newspaper."
Arena doesn't deny that his newspaper has a political slant. But he claims that the sole intent isn't to slam the mayor.
"We are a real newspaper. We have features, we have community news, we have obits, and we have editorial comment," he said.
"We feel that we are exercising our First Amendment right and all that we ask is to be left alone."
The Reporter's lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the mayor from confiscating the newspaper, attorney's fees, and compensatory and punitive damages.
?(Political propaganda or legitimate newspaper? It doesn't matter, according to William Volinte, a lawyer with the Newark law firm of Reitman Parsonnet, who is assisting the ACLU in its lawsuit on behalf of the Elizabeth Reporter. "In the opinion of the ACLU, political propaganda papers are what the First Amendment is designed to protect. It's what we fought a revolution over," said Volinte.) [Caption & Photo]


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