Nearly a year after punitively denying the Wet Mountain Tribune a county contract, Colorado’s Custer County agreed on Dec. 14, 2022, to pay $50,000 to settle a First Amendment lawsuit.
The Tribune has been the county’s newspaper of record, bidding for — and winning — the right to publish the county’s legal notices since 1883, according to an op-ed by owner and publisher Jordan Hedberg. The only exceptions were two years wherein it wasn’t the lowest bidder, he wrote, a precedent largely disregarded during the Board of County Commissioners’ Jan. 19 vote.
In a recording of the public meeting, Commissioner Bill Canda made it clear his vote was based on his opinions of the Tribune’s reporting. “I don’t know why I would support a paper that doesn’t support the county,” Canda said.
Commissioner Kevin Day expressed his agreement, describing the Tribune as “combative.” The lone dissenter, Commissioner Tom Flower, responded that only the cost and circulation should matter.
“I don’t recall the Tribune in 2021 refusing to put any legal notices in his paper and that’s what we’re paying him for,” Flower said. “Whether we agree or disagree with editorials or not doesn’t factor into it. We’re paying a paper to print our legal notices and be the paper of record.”
Another outlet, the Sangre De Cristo Sentinel, was awarded the contract with the county in a 2-1 vote. It has around half the circulation and bid more than twice what the Tribune did.
Hedberg filed a lawsuit against Canda, Day and the Board of County Commissioners on Aug. 18, 2022, arguing that they had retaliated against the Tribune because of its critical reporting on the county government and an official.
Neither Hedberg nor the county commissioners responded to requests for comment from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
“They can call me up and say, ‘Hey, we don’t like what you’ve done, we’re very upset with it,’ and that’s absolutely within their right,” Hedberg told a local news station. “But when they start using their power to attempt to punish and harm us, financially particularly in this case, then that crosses the line.”
Hedberg told Inside the News in Colorado in mid-December that the parties had reached a settlement agreement. In exchange for Hedberg dropping the suit, the county would pay the Tribune $50,000 and make it the newspaper of record for the next four years.
“I feel like the justice system upheld our First Amendment rights as newspapers in a pretty blatant case,” Hedberg said.
The case was formally dismissed on Dec. 28, according to court records.