The legal advertising section of the town's weekly newspaper was noticeably light Wednesday morning.
Making good on a move it threatened last week, Lehi pulled its ads from the Lehi Free Press in what might be an unprecedented move in Utah journalism. The city yanked the announcements and placed them in Provo's Daily Herald because council members are at odds with the newspaper over a biting editorial.Society of Professional Journalists attorney Jeff Hunt said cities outside Utah have withheld advertising from a newspaper due to some perceived unfair treatment. But inside the state, he said, he's heard about municipalities only threatening to do so.
"I've never seen it happen in Utah until now," he said.
Hunt finds it troubling that a government would retaliate against a newspaper because of an editorial position the paper has taken. He said the city trampled on the newspaper's right to free speech.
"They're on some pretty thin First Amendment ice," Hunt said.
Lehi may take its legal notices to whomever it chooses. And until Wednesday, it had always used the Free Press. But it can't discontinue advertising in that newspaper because it disagrees with the content, according to managing editor Marc Haddock.
"That's what the First Amendment is all about," Haddock wrote in a Wednesday column. A house editorial in the Free Press also took the city to task. A front-page story explained the issue and included a verbatim City Council statement criticizing the news-paper.
"As your elected officials, we are offended at the off-handed way in which the Lehi Free Press chose to characterize our efforts and feel that we must offer you the facts," according to a statement Councilwoman France Comer read at last Tuesday's council meeting.
The newspaper blasted the council a week earlier for scheduling a third monthly meeting Tuesdays at 3 p.m. The Free Press' reporter/editor can't attend the meeting because he puts the paper together Tuesdays for Wednesday morning delivery. Haddock said he believes the meeting was purposefully scheduled to exclude the press and public.
Comer called the charge "ludicrous." The meeting was set to keep pace with a growing amount of city business and to accommodate a council member's work schedule, she said.
Free Press Publisher Brett Bezzant said he hopes to work out a solution with the city before next Tuesday's council meeting.
"I'd like to talk to them first. They obviously don't know what they've done," he said. "We want to give them an out here."
If the two sides can't reach an agreement, the newspaper could seek legal remedies such as an injunction or court order forcing the city back to the Free Press.
Small-town newspapers rely on legal ads for income. And Lehi residents depend on the Free Press for weekly information about city meetings and activities.
One Free Press subscriber called the Deseret News frustrated about not being able to find the notices in her Wednesday edition. She wondered if she would to have drop the Free Press for another newspaper, something she really didn't want to do.
Regardless of what happens next, the Free Press doesn't intend to quit being a watchdog just because the city doesn't like being watched, according to Haddock.
"If we allow Lehi City or any other city to control our editorial content through economic blackmail, then we are vulnerable to similar attempts from other city councils to do the same thing," he wrote.