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No Free Speech Case in Nixing Letters to Editor

ST. LOUIS (CN) - A South Dakota county commissioner who persuaded a local paper to not run his nephew's letters to the editor did not trample the First Amendment, the 8th Circuit ruled.

Stephen Novotny filed suit against Tripp County, the Tripp County Weed Board, the Tripp County sheriff, and the individual members of the Tripp County Commission and the Tripp County Weed Board.

The dispute stems from a long history of hostility between Novotny and two Tripp County officials, his uncle, Virgil Novotny, and Virgil Novotny's political ally, Roger Turnquist, Virgil Novotny is a county commissioner and Turnquist sits on the county weed board.

After Stephen Novotny sent several letters critical of the commission to a local newspaper, Virgil Novotny said the county would publish legal notices in another publication unless it ceased publishing his nephew's letters.

Stephen Novotny said such threats constituted a civil conspiracy and violated his First and 14th Amendment rights.

A federal judge dismissed each claim on summary judgment, and the 8th Circuit affirmed on Dec. 19.

"In his appeal, [Stephen] Novotny argues that the district court erred in its First Amendment analysis," Judge Bobby Shepherd wrote for a three-member panel. "However, we find no error in the district court's conclusion that Novotny failed to establish a violation of his First Amendment rights. At oral argument, Novotny's counsel conceded that an individual does not possess a constitutional right to require that a privately owned newspaper publish his letter to the editor. Indeed, a contrary rule would infringe upon the right of the newspaper itself to decide what content it includes on its own editorial page."

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