Newspaper must open business records

IOWA — A state district court judge has decided that the public has a right to see the business records of the student newspaper at Iowa State University.Judge Kurt L. Wilke decided in March what has been for over a year a pitched battle between two newspapers: the Iowa State Daily student newspaper, published by the Iowa State Daily Publication Board Inc., and the The Daily Tribune, a local commercial daily in Ames published by Partnership Press.The student paper argues it is an entity independent of the university where it receives free rent, mail and phone service. The Tribune argues it is not making enough money because of a student paper that unfairly competes for advertisers in the Ames community.Judge Wilke said in his decision, “The issue before the court is narrow. Is the Publication Board a government body as defined in [the state open records law].”Wilke’s 10-page ruling questioned the board’s independence, saying that a significant amount of the board’s support “whether it be free rent, utilities or benefits,” comes out of property tax revenues to the university. The judge went on to question the board’s independence by quoting a former head of the university’s journalism school, who said “Our publications are created for the purpose of serving interests of the college as a whole. They would have no existence if it was not for the college.”The editor in chief of the student paper, Chris Miller, said the board will decide whether to appeal during its meeting on April 23. He said the board took the first steps in the appeal by filing a motion asking Judge Wilke to elaborate his decision.That motion has since been denied, according to counsel for the commercial paper.The legal struggle over access to the Iowa State Daily’s marketing, advertising and other records began in November of 1995, when the Partnership Press, which publishes The Daily Tribune, formally requested the Iowa State Daily’s records. The board eventually released some documents, but kept others and claimed they were confidential. In late November of that year, the local paper sued the board for violating Iowa’s open records law.Judge Wilke will hold a hearing April 18 to decide on whether to make the publications board pay for attorneys’ fees in the case. The editor of the Tribune, Michael Gartner, said last time he checked their fees were approximately $107,000.The hearing will also concern whether the exemptions to the open records law used by the board in refusing to disclose its business records can be applied in this case, said Gartner.On the issue of access to records, Gartner said the board is clearly a government body. “I have nothing against competition,” he said. “But [the publication board] is using university money to [compete with us]” he said.The student president of the board, John Hobson, said he could see that side of the issue, but he said the battle between the two newspapers is really about competition. “You take a thirty mile radius from Ames, and that’s what they own, except Iowa University,” he said. “But they want in on that, and when you’re in a college town, that’s where the money is, and that’s where you go.”Despite the decision in the open records case, the battle between the two newspapers appears far from over. In February, the Tribune filed a complaint against the school claiming that the student newspaper is operating in violation of the state’s unfair competition law because it is subsidized by the school. The Tribune has asked the university to prohibit the newspaper from distributing copies or soliciting advertising off campus.Miller said that before a hearing on the complaint can be scheduled before the university’s regents, the school’s chief administrative officer, Warren Madden, must reply to it. Madden, who is vice president of business and finance, will also seek input from the student paper itself, said Miller.In addition to the open records suit and the unfair competition appeal, Partnership Press has also filed a third action, a federal lawsuit against Iowa State University over the university’s policy governing publications distributed on campus.The company is claiming that its First Amendment rights have been violated because the university instituted a policy distinguishing university-sponsored publications from non-university-sponsored publications. They say the policy was a content-based restriction that places limits on the locations from which non-university-sponsored publications like the Tribune could be distributed. Hobson said the policy is good because it protects the Daily from the Tribune, but he also feels that every paper should be allowed on campus.Partnership Press will soon file a motion for summary judgment asking the judge to make a decision on the distribution policy case, said Gartner.