By Jim Newell
In a case that has lasted more than a year, the battle between Orion Township and the Detroit Free Press has come to a resolution, with both parties selecting to settle the case of littering versus First Amendment Rights.
“The residents should know that we did not lose,” said Supervisor Chris Barnett. “We are not paying them a penny.”
Residents who do not want Select delivered to their homes must still contact the Free Press to have the delivery discontinued. If that doesn’t work, they can call the township, which has a direct line to a designated individual who is supposed to resolve all Orion complaints.
At issue is the Free Press weekly publication Select, a mix of editorial content, advertising and coupons, that arrives in a plastic bag along driveways on a weekly basis and is delivered free of charge to households, including about 2,500 homes in Orion Township since 2012.
Barnett said he’s received hundreds of complaints from residents who don’t want Select delivered to their homes, and that the Free Press opt-out option isn’t working.
As part of the settlement, the township is agreeing to give the Free Press another chance to put an effective system in place so that residents who want to opt-out of Select being delivered to their homes can do so.
During its meeting on Monday, the township board of trustees passed a resolution accepting terms, on the condition that the Free Press would dismiss its case upon passage of the resolution.
According to the resolution, “The Detroit Free Press has now agreed to dismiss the cause of action in its entirety without payment of any money or reimbursement of any fees or cost…”
The Free Press had sued Orion Township and each member of the township board for $5 million, alleging violations of the Free Press’s First Amendment rights. The Free Press had also sought damages for economic losses, attorney’s fees and costs and interruption of business.
“I’m certainly satisfied that the lawsuit has been dismissed, that they’ve stopped suing us. I’m happy that I’m no longer being sued personally for $5 million, but I can never get back all the time I spent on this,” Barnett said. “Personally, I’m frustrated. I feel like they bullied us throughout the lawsuit.”
And while the township does not have to pay any damages or Free Press attorney’s fees, it does still have to cover its own attorney costs.
Current trustees Ron Sliwinski and Brian Birney were not on the township board when the lawsuit was filed and were not named in the lawsuit.
As part of the agreement, the Free Press agreed to provide Orion Township with a specific contact person to handle any problems regarding the delivery of Select to Orion residents.
“What that means is that if there are any problems, if our residents call me and complain, I can call a specific person at the Free Press and say, “Hey, you need to take care of this,’” Barnett said.
Treasurer Donni Steele praised Barnett for refusing to back down from the lawsuit.
“I commend you for not being afraid to take on a project that affects our residents and standing up to the Free Press,” Steele said.
Barnett said residents’ concerns are that they go on vacation, the paper piles up in the driveway and it says to thieves, “Hey, come take a look at my house if you’re up to no good.”
He also said that residents have complained about the paper ruining snow blowers when the papers become buried in the snow, and that the papers pile up in driveways, blow into streams and lakes and are a general nuisance.
“I literally spend dozens and dozens of hours, mostly in the wintertime, dealing with residents’ concerns,” Barnett said. “People don’t want them.”
“So we sent them a warning letter saying please stop delivering to the people who don’t want them, we never said don’t deliver at all in Orion, and that’s what they’re trying to make this case now … that we’re violating their first amendment rights,” Barnett said.
The township warned the Free Press in a letter Feb. 4, 2016 that the “leaving of unrequested and undesired newspapers and/or flyers circulated by your company” would result in the township fining the newspaper for littering.
The township issued two littering tickets to the Free Press on April 20 and May 26 of 2016. The Free Press then filed a $5 million lawsuit against the township.
The Free Press had requested a partial summary judgement and a preliminary injunction motion during a hearing on Sept. 22 before Judge George Caram Steeh, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan Southern Division, according to a document provided to the Lake Orion Review.
By Jim Newell