Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Mills & Bar Nunn by Casper Star Tribune and Wyoming Press Association
District Court Judge Dan Forgey has dismissed a lawsuit by the Casper Star Tribune and the Wyoming Press Association against the City of Mills and the Town of Bar Nunn regarding ordinances that require "municipal corporations to provide notice of actions, hearings, and information by way of legal notices or publications in newspapers."
Both Mills and Bar Nunn were set to cease publishing notices in the Casper Star Tribune.
"At the turn of last year, I think in January, the City of Mills passed an ordinance that allows for Mills to accomplish publication of public notices where it's required to do so under the law, via means other than a print newspaper," said municipalities attorney Pat Holscher. "It made use of the Wyoming Home Rule provisions in order to do that."
Holscher said that this summer, the Town of Bar Nunn did the same thing.
"After Bar Nunn had done that, the Casper Star Tribune and the Wyoming Press Association filed suit in the Seventh Judicial District, [as well as] a declaratory judgment action seeking to have the court declare those ordinances null-and-void," Holscher stated. "What the ordinance actually did was allow those municipalities to make alternative means of publication if they wanted to. As a practical matter, neither municipality has availed itself of that. They continue to actually publish in the Tribune. What occurred was that the two municipalities [Mills and Bar Nunn] moved to dismiss, arguing that the Tribune and the Press Association don't have legal standing in order to bring their suit."
The District Court ruled that, under the pleadings as filed, there was no standing.
Seth Coleman, the Mayor of the City of Mills said that their decision to cease publishing public notices with the newspaper was, to borrow a phrase, 'not personal; just business.'
"This is an issue that is probably a couple of decades overdue; to have some kind of court opinion or action," Coleman said. "We undertook, several years ago, trying to get more public involvement in our city council meetings and decision-making process. We started doing other things, but it became glaringly obvious that we were spending a lot of money putting public notices in print. And the people that we were trying to inform were also having to pay a high price to be able to view the material."
The evolution of journalism is an interesting one. As technology advanced, so too did the ways in which communication was shared. As such, Holscher said that the court took the evolution of media into consideration during this case, much to the chagrin of the Tribune and the Press Association.
"What they alleged was that publishing by means other than a print newspaper is illegal under the law," Holscher stated. "The interesting thing about the statutes themselves is that they're very old; they date back to the 19th century. And the [other] interesting thing about them is that newspapers were never defined anywhere in the statutes. Usually, when you look at a statute, there's a big, long section of definitions, but there aren't any as to what a newspaper is, and it makes sense. In 1895, you didn't need to tell somebody what a newspaper was. They knew what it was. In a modern context, that's a lot less clear."
In Casper alone, there's the print version of the Casper Star Tribune, as well as a digital version. There are digital versions of Oil City News, K2 Radio News, and more. Content has never been easier to access and information has never been easier to find. Because of this, the municipalities of Mills and Bar Nunn opted to publish their public notices via mediums that were easier (and cheaper) to access.
"The municipalities hope to be able to accomplish notice at some point in some other fashion, because the print newspaper, number one, is very expensive," Holscher continued. "The municipal funds are always very limited. And so if it could be accomplished in a better, cheaper fashion that reaches more people, they would really like to do that."
Mayor Coleman said that they are still utilizing the Trib for now, but that they will start to expand the way they publish notices early next year.
"We're still running notices in the Tribune for the time being, but we're also using our website and Facebook and Townsquare [Media] is helping us run notices," Coleman said. "We're getting ready after the first of the year to launch some mass notifications that will be tied to our sanitation and water and sewer billing. Those customers will have the option to have notifications of the various types of things that we put out. We feel that in today's electronic age, this is a much better use of public money than publishing in a newspaper. When we're able to publish using electronic media, we'll get some people at council meetings and public hearings. When we do it just with the newspaper, a lot of time, nobody comes to these meetings and we're making decisions with no input."
On Tuesday, the City of Mills put out a press release, acknowledging the dismissal of the lawsuit. It reads as follows:
"Mills, Wyoming (Nov 16, 2021) – The City of Mills is pleased with the result of the motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed against it and the Town of Bar Nunn by the Casper Star Tribune and the Wyoming Press Association. Publishing public notices in printed newspapers has become an antiquated, ineffective, and expensive way to inform the public in the age of electronic news media and information distribution. The City of Mills considers online news publications, electronic media, and mass notification systems to be much more costeffective and successful in accomplishing the goal of keeping the public informed of matters of official and public interest. We continue to invest in these resources in an effort to provide as much transparency and generate as much public involvement in the decision making process as possible.
The attorney for the Star Tribune and the Press Association stated they would re-file a lawsuit. The City of Mills welcomes this challenge as we are confident we are working to most efficiently use public funds to accomplish their intended purpose, while the Star Tribune and the Press Association wish to protect a revenue stream that is generated by an antiquated, captive and ineffective means. In the view of the City of Mills, deeming newspapers to only include printed publications, while making sense in prior decades, no longer does and would constitute an unequal and unconstitutional operation of the law to the detriment of other media forms as well as to the public."
While the attorney for the Star Tribune and the Press Association may re-file, Holscher stated that he doesn't see the possible outcome being any different.
"The dismissal, which the court issued last week, is without prejudice," he said. "So the Star Tribune can certainly file a lawsuit again and they can attempt to fix what was wrong with their pleadings. We would argue that it can't be fixed. But they never alleged that they were impacted monetarily. So the District Court found that they had failed to allege that they had a direct interest under the law, and that was the basis of the dismissal."