Oregon State pays six-figure settlement after confiscating newspaper boxes

OREGON — Oregon State University will pay $101,000 to settle a lawsuit stemming from its disposal of a now-defunct conservative student newspaper’s distribution boxes.

Oregon State admitted no fault in the agreement, and the lawsuit was officially dismissed Wednesday. As part of the settlement, they will pay $1,000 to the newspaper’s former editor and $100,000 in legal fees to the organization that represented him.

The Liberty was an alternative student voice on campus, according to the original complaint, with “conservative, libertarian” leanings. In 2009, all seven of the publication’s green distribution bins disappeared. Further investigation into the matter revealed that university officials had confiscated the bins and placed them in a “trash heap,” the complaint said.

Press boxes containing the larger, university-funded student newspaper — The Daily Barometer — however, remained untouched. Then-Liberty editor William Rogers contacted university administrators and was eventually told that the bins’ placement violated an unwritten university policy and were removed to aesthetically improve campus. Rogers and the OSU Student Alliance sued, singling out high-ranking school officials like President Edward Ray.

A lower court originally dismissed the case, reasoning that Rogers did not effectively justify that named administrators were responsible for the distribution bin disappearances, but the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that dismissal, asserting that the university’s enforcement of “an unwritten and previously unenforced policy governing newsbins on campus” entitled the complainant to a trial.

OSU spokesman Steve Clark said “universities are all about free speech,” and “we’re disappointed the newspaper boxes were placed in a field.” This was not meant to be a discriminatory action against The Liberty, he said.

This wasn’t a matter of freedom of speech being infringed, Clark said. The events pertained to the location and placement of distribution boxes, and the personnel who disposed of them had no idea their actions would result in a lawsuit, Clark said.

“We’re glad this is in the past,” Clark said. “We have policies that are more clear and articulated to these kinds of procedures. We’re disappointed that members of our staff removed those boxes and stored them in a field.”

The university president and other top officials bear no responsibility for the events, however, Clark said.

“We’ve actually protested that he was named,” Clark said. “We believe the university should have been the defendant, not individuals like the president who had no action in it whatsoever.”

David Hacker, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney representing The Liberty, said this was “classic censorship” and a victory for student press rights. It’s a lesson to academic officials: Censorship will cost you, Hacker said.

“Theft and destruction and defacement of independent student newspapers is a widespread problem across the country,” Hacker said. “I think the case is an important lesson to public universities, showing them that they need to protect students’ right to speak freely, and that includes the rights of student newspapers.”

The Liberty represented a “whole host of different viewpoints” and was unafraid to openly criticize the university’s administration, Hacker said. It’s telling that The Daily Barometer wasn’t targeted, along with other unaffiliated news outlets distributed throughout campus, Hacker said.

“There was evidence of viewpoint discrimination in the fact that OSU admitted it was an unwritten policy that they enforced,” Hacker said. “Unwritten policies are just a means for government officials to exercise their unbridled discretion to engage in viewpoint discrimination with papers they don’t agree with.”

Clark disagreed with this assessment.

“That may be his opinion. I was not here at that time. I don’t believe (Hacker) was here at that time,” Clark said. “He’s an attorney representing a nonprofit organization that made $100,000 on this case, so he can believe whatever he wants.”

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.