Lawyer Abandons Newspaper p.12

By: stacy jones A FIRST Amendment lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey against the mayor of Elizabeth on behalf of a local newspaper has been disrupted due to the withdrawal of the ACLU attorney.
William J. Volonte, a lawyer with the Newark law firm Reitman Parsonnet and an ACLU lawyer, filed a notice of cross motion in U.S. District Court to be removed as counsel for the plaintiffs, the weekly Elizabeth Reporter. A judge approved Volonte's request on March 24.
Volonte's reasons for leaving the case include the Reporter's publishing of pretrial settlement negotiations and attorney-client communications.
The lawsuit originated in 1995 when the Reporter accused Mayor J. Christian Bollwage of violating its First Amendment rights by organizing and participating in efforts to seize and destroy copies of the Reporter (E&P, Oct. 28, 1995).
Since the Reporter began publication in 1993, Bollwage has labeled the paper a political sheet.
According to the suit, Bollwage, or people under his directive, took bundles of the newspaper on at least five occasions ? a fact the mayor didn't deny.
"The paper is free. You see the signs that say 'take one,'" said Bollwage, as quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer. ". . . no one says you can take only one. You can take as many as you like."
Bollwage subsequently filed a countersuit for defamation and libel.
In addition to Volonte's withdrawal, a recent court decision awarded Bollwage $350 in legal fees, the cost of filing his countersuit. The Reporter never responded to the counterclaim, hence the judgment against the paper.
"Mr. Volonte failed to represent us" in the countersuit, said Robert Jaspan, Reporter spokesperson and a volunteer at the paper.
All of the positions at the Reporter are on a voluntary basis, explained Jaspan, who sets up ads and pastes up articles.
According to Jaspan, a city councilman who ran an unsuccessful campaign against Bollwage, Volonte did not give the presiding judge the Reporter's response to Bollwage's countersuit.
Repeated calls to Volonte were not returned.
The turn of events has Bollwage feeling vindicated. "This was a political filing," he said. "This had nothing to do with First Amendment rights."
Still, the Reporter is not giving up, saying the case still has merit. It plans to petition the court to have the ACLU provide another attorney to try the original suit, explained Jaspan.
In response to Volonte's charges against the Reporter, Jaspan said they were valid.
The publication of settlement negotiations occurred after Bollwage issued a counterproposal to a previous settlement offer by the Reporter. Because Volonte had informed the Reporter that Bollwage's offer was unacceptable, editors at the paper chose to turn it into a story.
Volonte "encouraged us to publish stories on what's going on with the [suit]," said Jaspan. "If we thought in any
ACLU attorney, citing violations of lawyer-client privilege, is permitted
by judge to withdraw from court case way he didn't want us to publish it, we wouldn't have."
Volonte left the case shortly thereafter.
"Yes, Mr. Volonte was upset," said Jaspan.
In addition to seeking a new ACLU lawyer through a court motion, the Reporter plans to petition to get the $350 judgment in favor of Bollwage reversed.
Bollwage has some legal maneuverings of his own scheduled.
A motion for dismissal of the original suit will be decided on in a couple of weeks. Also, Bollwage is filing to recoup monetary damages from the Reporter. So far, he said, attorney fees are "in excess of $10,000."
?(The weekly Elizabeth (N.J.) Reporter, which is suing the city's mayor for allegedly seizing and destroying copies of the free paper, lost its ACLU attorney, who withdrew from the case.) [Photo & Caption]
# Editor & Publisher n April 5, 1997


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