Iowa newspapers, university reach settlement

Wednesday, March 17, 1999

The owner of The Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa, recently settled a 3-year-old lawsuit with Iowa State University and its campus newspaper involving competition and distribution of publications on campus.

As part of the agreement, which came only days before a hearing before the state Supreme Court, the university offered more distribution sites to The Tribune. The campus newspaper, the Iowa State Daily, also agreed that it wouldn't distribute its paper off campus.

The university and the Daily also agreed to pay The Tribune about $200,000 in legal fees.

“This puts us on back on a level playing field with the Daily, which receives all of these government subsidies such as free rent,” said Michael Gartner, editor of The Tribune and a trustee of The Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. “They cannot use all of those subsidies to compete unfairly against a private business.”

In 1996, The Tribune filed a federal lawsuit against the university for restricting the distribution of non-campus publications while allowing the Daily to be distributed at more than 70 sites across campus. The Tribune also sued the Daily in state court to determine if the campus paper were subject to state open-meetings and open-records laws and thus was a government body.

In 1997, a state district court ruled that the Daily was a government entity. Since it was a government entity, The Tribune said, the Daily was barred from competing with a private business. Both sides appealed the decision to the Iowa Supreme Court, where the case was to be heard Feb. 12. The Tribune sought reimbursement of its legal fees and the Daily sought reversal of the decision.

As part of the recent settlement, the Daily has agreed to refrain from competing unfairly with private businesses. According to Gartner, this forbids the campus newspaper from using professionals to sell advertising or distributing free issues off campus.

Last summer, in a court-mediated settlement in the 1996 federal lawsuit, Iowa State officials agreed to allow The Tribune to distribute its free Campus Reader newspaper at 39 locations on campus. The university also said it would reimburse the newspaper about $90,000 in legal fees in that case.

Gartner said the settlement on 39 news racks was much better than an earlier offer of only seven. But he notes that the Daily still has more than 70 on-campus locations.

Annette Forbes, general manager of the Daily, says the newspaper's student advisory board understands that because the newspaper accepts money from the university, it gains a number of benefits not granted to competing publications.

“Certainly, we felt that after three years neither side had gained much,” Forbes said. “We felt that we did what we needed to do, and, therefore, we have an agreement that will be very workable.”

Gartner said the problem stemmed from an ambitious Iowa State Daily staff member “who wanted to take a university asset and make it a business.”

This case was about a government-subsidized entity competing unfairly with a private business, Gartner said. “It had nothing to do with the kids on the staff. I hire those kids every year. I have taught over there, and I still lecture to classes. This was never a journalism dispute or a content dispute.”