Student Newspaper’s Lawsuit Against Oregon State Moving Forward

A years-long newsbin and free press fight has reemerged at Oregon State University.  It involves OSU administrators, a conservative campus newspaper, and what one side sees as censorship and the other as simple enforcement of school rules.

The 60-second backstory: In early 2009, OSU officials suddenly removed a set of bins carrying the conservative student newspaper The Liberty from spots around campus.  At the time, admins. said their actions were in accordance with “an existing, unwritten policy that restricts where off-campus newspaper bins could be placed.”  It was also apparently part of a campus clean-up effort.

Liberty staff disagreed with those rationales, vehemently.  They pointed out the paper was an on-campus pub, published since 2002 and aligned with a recognized student group.  They claimed the bin removal reeked of nothing more than censorship and double standards, providing the longtime student newspaper The Daily Barometer with “special distribution” privileges.

A top Liberty editor said at the time: “Basically, we just want to have a couple of square feet on campus where we can place our bins.”  The paper filed a lawsuit.  A district court judge dismissed it, determining that the university had the right to afford its official student publications with certain privileges such as increased distribution that were not offered to alternative, independent or underground outlets.

The most memorable quote, post-dismissal, came from OSU’s news and communications director.  He declared the fight more a publicity stunt than an actual free press battle: “This was very much an exercise in increased visibility. The story line: a big, oppressive, liberal university squelches a small, defenseless, conservative magazine. We’re glad this matter has been resolved.”

That resolution, however, is now on hold.  Reversing the lower court decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is granting trial clearance for the Liberty to once again pursue their claim of campus distribution discrimination.

As one of the ruling judges noted, “The policy that OSU enforced against plaintiffs . . . was not merely unwritten. It was also unannounced and had no history of enforcement.  It materialized like a bolt of out of the blue to smite the Liberty’s, but not the Daily Barometer’s, newsbins onto the trash heap.”

A portion of a statement from the Liberty’s legal counsel: “Universities should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas.  Students don’t deserve censorship for having viewpoints that university officials don’t happen to favor. The argument that the independent student paper’s bins were confiscated to ‘clean up’ the campus was simply not believable.”

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