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Grand Jury Indicts Newspaper Editor In Criminal Libel Case

June 27, 1988

KINGSTREE, S.C. (AP) _ A Williamsburg County weekly newspaper editor has been indicted on charges of criminally libeling two state lawmakers, court officials announced today.

The charges were brought by state Rep. B.J. Gordon and state Sen. Frank McGill, both Democrats, after editor Jim Fitts wrote a column urging voters to reject the politicians in the June primary and accused them of stealing.

The charges were presented to a grand jury, and Fitts showed no reaction as the jury’s decision was read. He said afterwards that he was looking forward to telling his story in court. ″I got what I wanted,″ he said.

Though libel cases are not unusual, criminal libel cases that can send a journalist to jail are. The Williamsburg County case is believed to be only the fourth involving journalists in 40 years in South Carolina and the first since 1984.

The case will be tried in late August or early September, Solicitor Wade Kolb has said. If convicted, Fitts could face $5,000 in fines and a year in prison on each of the two counts.

Wallace Connor, attorney for both lawmakers, said he was satisfied with the indictment.

″I think Mr. Fitts has gone too far with it. He apparently wants to have the publicity regardless of what, so we’ll accommodate him,″ he said. ″I think he’s got a million dollars worth of publicity for a slander sheet.″

Fitts, 62, said he would ask to move the trial from Williamsburg County.

″The power structure has long roots in Williamsburg County,″ he said.

Fitts, editor of The Voice, a black-oriented newspaper with a circulation of 2,300 in a poor, rural county of about 40,000, riled Gordon, who is black, and McGill, who is white, with a column in his May 17 edition.

Fitts wrote, in part: ″I will say to you, without fear of contradiction, if every black in Williamsburg County would start stealing today and steal every day for the rest of their lives, they could not steal as much as those two have stolen during their time in power.″

The column gave no specifics, and when asked later what he thought they had stolen, he said only that they had taken the pride of people of Williamsburg County. Both politicians won their June 14 elections.

Fitts, who was jailed for two nights on the charges before being released on bond, said Thursday that an indictment and jail term might help him by drawing more attention to the problems of blacks in the county.

″I’ve always been opinionated,″ he said. ″I just have an opinion and I have no problem sharing it.″

Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, has said that Fitts made a political statement about two politicians.

″It seems to me that punishing someone for speaking is not an American concept,″ she said.

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