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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

No news is good news? Spokane Valley City Council weighing newspaper ban

Spokane Valley City Council is arguing over a proposal that would ban newspapers from City Hall and other public buildings.   (KATHY PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Some say it’ll get politics out of City Hall. Others are calling it a politically motivated attack against a city councilman.

On Tuesday, the Spokane Valley City Council discussed a proposal to ban third-party publications from city properties. If the idea becomes official policy, newspapers such as the Inlander, the Current and the Exchange would no longer be able to drop off free papers at City Hall or CenterPlace Regional Event Center.

Mayor Pam Haley and council members Rod Higgins, Arne Woodard and Laura Padden said they like the idea. Higgins, Woodard and Haley noted in interviews that the free papers often include political advertisements during the run-up to local elections. State law prohibits campaign materials on government property, so those ads can’t be on display at City Hall, they argued.

“It’s going to eliminate politics from City Hall, and that’s a good thing,” Padden said.

Council members Brandi Peetz and Tim Hattenburg strongly oppose the ban idea, for a few reasons. Peetz emphasized that the newspapers play a critical role in helping the public follow what’s happening in city government. Hattenburg agreed and said the ads within the papers support local businesses.

Allowing newspapers in the City Hall seems innocuous, Hattenburg said.

“This is that important of an issue?” he said in an interview. “Are you kidding me?”

But the debate isn’t just about the theoretical pros and cons of allowing newspapers on city property.

City Councilman Ben Wick and his wife, Danica Wick, own the Current, a Valley-specific monthly newspaper. Ben Wick did not respond to requests for comment and recused himself during Tuesday’s debate.

The newspaper argument is the latest fight in what’s been a contentious start to the year for the City Council.

In March, Haley, Woodard, Higgins and Padden battled against Wick, Peetz and Hattenburg about where to place a large bronze bear statue. The sides disagreed in January about how to distribute regional committees among council members.

The uptick in arguments coincides with a shift in the balance of power on the City Council. Before January, Wick, Peetz, Hattenburg and Linda Thompson made up the informal majority on the officially nonpartisan council. Padden’s victory over Thompson in the November election has put Wick, Peetz and Hattenburg in the minority.

Peetz didn’t hold back when describing what she thinks the proposed ban is really about.

“This is politically motivated,” Peetz said during the meeting, adding in an interview afterward that she thinks the whole situation is “childish” and little more than Haley, Woodard, Higgins and Padden’s “way of getting Ben’s paper out of the foyer.”

Is banning newspapers legal?

In a presentation to the council, City Attorney Cary Driskell explained Spokane Valley has a clear right to ban third-party publications.

Driskell said third-party publications – which include everything from pamphlets to newspapers – don’t have a right to be in City Hall or CenterPlace lobbies because those areas “are not a traditional public forum.” The ban wouldn’t violate anyone’s First Amendment rights, he said.

On top of that, the city can restrict distribution of materials if they create clutter or don’t align with the intended purpose of a public building, Driskell said.

He also wrote that allowing third-party publications in public buildings could be “construed” as violating Washington law.

He referenced a state statute that prohibits the use of public facilities for “assisting a campaign for election” or “the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition.” Specifically, Driskell pointed out that the Inlander, the Current and the Exchange regularly include election information or campaign ads.

Haley, Woodard and Higgins all said Driskell’s state law interpretation is their primary reason for supporting a newspaper ban.

“It’s against the law to have them there,” Woodard said.

They all highlighted campaign ads in the Current as their primary concern and said they’re worried the city could get in trouble with the state Public Disclosure Commission if they allow the newspapers to stay. The Public Disclosure Commission makes rulings on campaign finance and transparency violations.

If displaying newspapers and other materials on public property violates Washington law, then a lot of local governments are lawbreakers. It’s unlikely that many, or any, local governments in Washington have banned newspapers – Spokane Valley could be trailblazing.

It’s common practice for local governments to have newspapers lying around or displayed in racks. Copies of the Inlander or The Spokesman-Review aren’t hard to find on the Spokane County campus or in Spokane City Hall.

Driskell explained if the city moves forward with a newspaper ban, it will probably only affect free publications.

The city’s paid subscriptions to The Spokesman-Review and the Spokane Valley News Herald wouldn’t be affected – although those papers aren’t left out in the lobby in large numbers. The main effect of the ban would be to block third-party publications from using city properties as distribution sites.

What do the papers think?

The third-party publication debate is mostly about The Current.

Barb Howard, a regular attendee at Spokane Valley City Council meetings, has complained about the paper – and launched personal attacks against Wick – in the past. In February, she threatened to file a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission if the city didn’t pull the Current from the City Hall foyer.

Danica Wick said the City Council doesn’t need to pass a resolution to kick the Current out of City Hall. She said if the city had asked, she would have been happy to remove it on her own.

“We put it there as a service to the community so it’s easy for them to access,” she said. “It doesn’t make us anything. It costs us time.”

Removing the Current from City Hall isn’t a big deal, Danica Wick said, but losing CenterPlace would be.

CenterPlace is an important gathering spot for the community, she said. It’s also home to the Spokane Valley Senior Center. Prohibiting third-party publications would make it harder for seniors to get the Current, Danica Wick said.

The Inlander doesn’t deliver papers to City Hall, but Inlander Publisher Ted McGregor said losing CenterPlace would be significant.

“We’re disappointed,” McGregor said. “I would expect elected officials entrusted with running a public building to support freedom of speech.”

McGregor said he’s not aware of any local governments in Washington or Idaho that have banned the Inlander. He added that taking newspapers out of city properties won’t remove politics from City Hall.

“There’s already politics in City Halls everywhere,” he said. “It’s kind of obvious.”

City Council will likely vote on a ban resolution in the coming weeks.