After 5 Years, the Oregon State Liberty Lawsuit Saga Reaches $101,000 Conclusion

A bit more than five years ago, Oregon State University staffers removed campus newsstands holding a conservative student newspaper. This week, school officials agreed to pay out $101,000 in connection with those actions, as long as a former editor of the paper signed a document saying OSU did not do anything wrong.

Yes, it appears we may have finally come to the end of “The Liberty Lawsuit Saga,” a long-running drama in collegemediatopia boasting more twists than the HIMYM finale (too soon?).

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As I have previously posted, this saga began in simpler times (early 2009), when OSU officials suddenly removed a set of newsstands carrying The Liberty from spots around campus. Administrators 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.

From the moment they were offered, 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 alleged the bin removal reeked of nothing more than censorship and double standards, providing the longtime student newspaper The Daily Barometer with “special distribution” privileges.

As 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, arguing 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.

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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, was later overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted trial clearance for the Liberty to continue pursuing their claim of distribution discrimination. OSU fought back with a dismissal appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. This past fall, the Supreme Court denied the appeal.

Cue settlement. As The Oregonian reports, the school is paying $100,000 in legal fees and $1,000 to former student editor William Rogers in exchange for the suit’s dismissal and an agreement by both parties that the school was not at fault.

Prior to the payment, the school had also “changed its policies to allow any approved student groups that publish newspapers to distribute them on campus.”

A written statement from a lawyer for the Liberty squad: “We hope this case will encourage public officials everywhere to respect the freedom of students to engage in the marketplace of ideas that a public university is supposed to be. The university has done the right thing, not only through changing their unconstitutional policy, but also by compensating the students for the violation of their First Amendment freedoms.”

The Liberty, by the way, no longer exists — folding in 2009 after a seven-year run — but its free press and free speech fight has certainly outlasted it.

The End

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