An ongoing legal dispute between the Casper Star-Tribune and a pair of local municipalities has brought up a constitutional issue and questioned the definition of a newspaper in the modern day.
Mills and Bar Nunn both passed ordinances last year meant to exempt them from publishing public notices in a newspaper. In response, the paper filed a petition asking the ordinances to be nullified, but that case was dismissed in November after a Natrona County judge found the paper lacked standing in the matter.
Earlier this year, an attorney for the Star-Tribune filed another similar petition, clarifying the paper’s monetary interest in the issue — basically, that it counts on revenue from those publications as part of its business model.
According to the petition, the paper has lost “an undetermined amount of revenue” since the municipalities have stopped publishing meeting minutes in its pages. Legal and other public notices have still been appearing in the paper, court filings say.
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Patrick Holscher, an attorney representing Mills and Bar Nunn, filed a counterclaim asking the court to rule that the statutes requiring public notices to be distributed in a print newspaper are unconstitutional, both at the state and federal level.
He also said Tuesday he hopes the court, or a higher one if the case is eventually appealed, can give some clarity to what exactly constitutes a newspaper in the digital age.
“At the time these statutes were drafted — they’re over 100 years old — everyone knew what a newspaper was, and there was no substitute,” Holscher said. “Now… it’s become really unclear.”
If the objective of the law is to get information out to the public most effectively, Holscher said, print newspapers may no longer be the best option.
But Bruce Moats, attorney for the Star-Tribune, said that printed papers establish a record that can’t be altered after the fact, like a website may be. And extending the definition of a newspaper to include online media and “electronic media that distributes news,” to borrow language from the municipalities’ counterclaim, could muddy the waters when it comes to objective third-party publishing, according to Moats.
“We never really wanted the government in the business of defining what is news, or what is a newspaper,” Moats said.
While the defendants say the paper is not one of “general circulation” in their municipalities since it’s printed in Nebraska and has had delayed delivery at times, the paper maintains in their petition that it meets the statutory requirements to print those notices.
But Holscher said those requirements don’t apply in this case, since they’re included in state statute under the section concerning counties, not cities and towns. Moats said that the language of the statute still applies in this case.
Editor’s note: The Star-Tribune newsroom is not involved in legal decisions in this matter.
Follow city and crime reporter Ellen Gerst on Twitter at @ellengerst.