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Lehi officials admit error in yanking ads

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The city decided Tuesday to resume running legal notices in the Lehi Free Press after a Salt Lake media attorney intervened on the newspaper's behalf.

In so doing, the council and administration publicly admitted they erred in pulling the ads from the weekly newspaper two weeks ago out of anger over a recent editorial."We realize now that we are not permitted to make the same decisions that a dissatisfied consumer is able to make, and while we are still frustrated by our relationship with the Lehi Free Press, we are willing to admit that we were wrong," city administrator Ed Collins said in a prepared statement at Tuesday night's council meeting.

Applause broke out in the packed council chambers as Collins concluded.

The realization came after the city received a letter Monday from Society of Professional Journalists attorney Jeff Hunt. Hunt said he's never seen a more clear-cut case of liability for violation of First Amendment rights.

Whether the newspaper's criticism of the city was legitimate or fair can be debated. "What cannot be debated, however, is that the city's removal of its legal advertising from the Free Press in retaliation for perceived editorial unfairness on the part of the newspaper is unconstitutional," Hunt wrote.

Marc Haddock, Free Press managing editor, said the city's statement satisfied the newspaper and he wants to put the matter behind him.

The Free Press' March 19 editorial criticized the city for holding a third monthly meeting on Tuesdays at 3 p.m., a time when the paper's reporter/editor cannot attend. Tuesdays are the newspaper's production days. The paper is delivered Wednesday mornings. The Free Press concluded the meeting was set at that time to exclude it and the public.

Councilwoman Frances Comer denied that, saying the meeting was scheduled for Tuesday afternoons to accommodate another council member's schedule. Council members said an increasing workload prompted them to have three meetings a month.

A week following the editorial, the council unanimously voted to instruct the administration to find another newspaper in which to advertise. The city used Provo's Daily Herald the past two weeks, a newspaper not as widely circulated in Lehi as the Free Press.

In addition, the council issued a statement saying it was "offended at the offhanded way in which the Lehi Free Press chose to characterize our efforts."

Hunt said the statement, along with Comer's comment to the Deseret News that "we're a little tired of a certain reporter at the Free Press who keeps taking jabs at the city and never has anything good to say about us," left little doubt as to the city's motivation for pulling the ads.

The U.S. Supreme Court made it clear last year that the First Amendment protects newspapers and other independent contractors who do business with government entities from action taken in retaliation for the exercise of free speech. Government entities and officials that retaliate against a newspaper for publishing critical editorials and news stories are liable for damages for violation of the newspaper's constitutional rights.

In his letter, Hunt called on Lehi to immediately resume its legal advertising in the Free Press and publicly acknowledge it was wrong in a statement approved by the newspaper.

Collins said the city complied for several reasons including the difficulty of defending its decision in the face of case law that contravenes its position, a state code that caps legal advertising rates and the administrative nature of Lehi's decision.

Even though it was the council that decided to pull the ads, Collins asked to read the statement at Tuesday's meeting. Council members made no comments about the issue.