Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Newspaper Sues over Dropped Advertising

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Newspaper Sues over Dropped Advertising

Article excerpt

The Oakland Press of Pontiac, Mich., has gone to court to force a city-owned hospital to continue advertising in its pages.

In a March 3 lawsuit, the Press argues that the North Oakland Medical Center's decision to cancel about $64,000 worth of ads in the Press amounts to a civil rights violation.

The Press lawsuit says NOMC withdrew its advertising to punish the newspaper for its news coverage and for editorials opposing a referendum that would have allowed NOMC to reorganize its corporation.

Canceling the ads was "a monetary sanction to chill and inhibit freedom of expression," the suit charges.

After an April 6 hearing, a federal judge is expected to rule on the newspaper's request for a preliminary injunction that would require the North Oakland Medical Center to purchase equivalent advertising in the Press if the hospital runs any print ads.

The suit also asks the court to require the hospital to restore its advertising schedule in the newspaper.

Oakland Press publisher Bruce McIntyre said the lawsuit to force government advertising is "rare" but not unprecedented.

"I don't want the misunderstanding to persist that we're trying to force advertising. That's not the issue at all," McIntyre said in a telephone interview.

"The lawsuit says we have no automatic right to that advertising. What is at issue is the doctrine that says a public agency cannot punish someone for exercising the right to free speech," McIntyre said.

Press attorney Dawn Phillips said the paper has a letter that is "smoking gun" evidence that advertising was canceled solely because the hospital objected to Press coverage and editorial policy.

The Dec. 18 letter was sent from NOMC board chairman Cyril Hall to Phil Meeks, chief executive officer of Capital Cities/ABC, which publishes the Press.

"Because of the obvious bias and disregard for North Oakland Medical Center, we will discontinue all advertising in the Oakland Press," Hall wrote.

Hall added that in its coverage of the referendum the newspaper "did not remain neutral but daily printed articles that would lead the voters to believe that something underhanded was taking place."

The letter also accused McIntyre of having a conflict of interest in the referendum issue because he serves on the board of the competing St. Joseph Mercy Hospital.

McIntyre scoffed at the accusation.

"I've been on the board of [the] hospital for 15 years. I'm a volunteer. I don't get paid. I don't have anything to gain in whatever happens to the NMOC," he said.

Pontiac voters rejected the reorganization referendum last Nov. 26, and the hospital canceled its ad schedule Dec. 8.

"They just blatantly punished us for that coverage," publisher McIntyre said.

Press attorney Phillips says the newspaper has the law on its side even though it is not "entitled" to any advertising.

U.S. District Court for the 5th Circuit recently ruled for a Mississippi newspaper company in a similar case, she said. Phillips said in that case, North Mississipi Communications v. Jones, the court ruled that a county board of supervisors must prove that its decision to pull legal ads from the newspaper was made more for "non-discriminatory motives" than for punishment.

Another federal court, in the 3rd Circuit, similarly has ruled that a municipal body cannot withdraw advertising from a newspaper solely to punish the paper, Phillips said. …

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