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Here’s why the Press & Journal was forced to sue the borough: Editorial

Posted 10/24/18

Note from the Editorial Board: Because the following editorial is about news coverage decisions made by Press & Journal staff, public members Susannah Gal and Jay Howes did not give input in …

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Here’s why the Press & Journal was forced to sue the borough: Editorial

Posted

Note from the Editorial Board: Because the following editorial is about news coverage decisions made by Press & Journal staff, public members Susannah Gal and Jay Howes did not give input in writing it.

We believe the First Amendment rights of the Press & Journal are being violated by the borough of Middletown through its new advertising policy.

However, we want to be clear that the policy also negatively affects the borough’s residents and businesses.

Protecting the right to report news without fear of government retribution is the core issue asserted in the federal civil rights suit filed on behalf of the Press & Journal in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg on Tuesday.

How does the borough’s policy affect you, if you are a resident or business in Middletown?

• Your government is paying up to three times more in fees to print its legal advertising in the Patriot-News. We stated in a previous editorial that the borough has every right to use the Patriot-News for such advertising. But it doesn’t have the right to do so if the mayor and six of seven council members are making the decision simply because they don’t like the coverage they have received.

• Your borough government is taking business away from a Middletown business — a business that has been here since 1854, a business owned and staffed by local residents. Further, the borough has created a policy in which its officials have empowered themselves to arbitrarily punish any resident or business who they deem antagonistic or incompatible to their way of thinking.

• We believe your borough government is making decisions that violate the cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.”

• Your borough government will be spending your tax dollars to defend itself despite being given ample time to resolve it out of court.

We did not make the decision to file this lawsuit lightly. As we said in a previous editorial, we prefer to report on the news, not make it.

But we were left with no other choice.

A quick refresher: A July 17 letter delivered to the newspaper and signed by Mayor James Curry III and council members Damon Suglia, Dawn Knull, Jenny Miller, Angela Lloyd, Ian Reddinger and Mike Woodworth stated that Middletown was terminating all advertising in the Press & Journal as a result of our news reporting and editorials.

In other words, they didn’t like how we covered the borough so they decided to retaliate financially.

More than that, the closing point made in the July 17 letter was: “Should the Press and Journal demonstrate reliability to professionally and responsibly report on the actions and statements of Borough Council and Management, as well critiquing us from a founded and balanced position, we will be happy to patron your newspaper again.”

We will not be coerced into providing only positive coverage of the borough government in exchange for advertising dollars.

Our lawsuit alleges that such action, being motivated by the content and viewpoints expressed in the newspaper, constitutes discrimination against expression protected by the First Amendment. This opinion is supported by a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Board of County Commissioners of Wabaunsee County v. Umbehr. Our lawsuit seeks an injunction against the policy outlined in the July 17 letter.

The lawyer representing us, Aaron Martin of Mette, Evans & Woodside in Harrisburg, read a letter to council at its Sept. 18 meeting in an effort to give them the opportunity to recant their unconstitutional policy. Copies of the letter (which can be found on our website) were given to all the borough council members and Curry. Suglia, the council president, stated the letter would be given to the borough’s solicitor. In the following weeks, we heard nothing from the mayor, council or the solicitor.

So we made the very difficult decision to proceed with legal action.

We are not asking to be compensated for any damages if we were to prevail.

In the 10 years from June 1, 2008, through May 31, 2018, the borough placed 207 legal ads in the Press & Journal.

Those stopped in June. While that has had a financial impact on us, we do not want our readers to think this is about money.

Mette, Evans & Woodside has the right to ask that its fees be paid by the borough if it prevails. But the Press & Journal has not asked for one dime in any type of settlement. We just want the playing ground made even for us to compete for borough advertising.

That means we should be treated the same during those times when we write upbeat, supportive stories and editorials — which we do often — as when we ask council members probing questions, report borough news that can be unflattering or state opposing viewpoints on issues.

The bottom line: Our job is not to be a cheerleader for the borough, but to report and editorialize on the issues facing it.

We will leave you with a statement from our editorial of Sept. 26: “A free and independent press is not a right to be honored when useful and discarded when inconvenient. Our job is to provide you, the citizens and businesses of the borough, with thorough coverage on the good, the bad, and the occasionally ugly. The borough’s recent attempts to manipulate that coverage will never change our mission.”