PORTLAND, Ore. -- The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand a complaint from the creators of a conservative-leaning student newspaper who were dismayed that Oregon State University confiscated their distribution bins and dumped them in a storage yard.
Supporters of The Liberty filed the lawsuit in 2009, alleging university President Ed Ray and other school officials granted the official campus newspaper numerous bins while arbitrarily restricting The Liberty's distribution.
U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken dismissed the lawsuit, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived it last year. The high court decided Monday not to get involved, so the lawsuit will return to Judge Aiken's court.
If The Liberty ultimately wins, damages would likely by nominal, said Heather Gebelin Hacker, attorney for the plaintiffs.
"It's the principle that matters," she said. "The university has denied all along that they violated the students' rights here - and they did. It also sends a message to public universities that they need to respect the rights of their students and the college campus needs to be a marketplace of ideas."
Oregon State spokesman Steve Clark said the university strongly supported freedom of speech and was not trying to restrict The Liberty. A major concern for Oregon State and other universities, he said, is the question of whether high-ranking officials such as Ray can be held liable for the decisions of a subordinate.
According to court records, The Liberty's outdoor bins vanished from campus during the winter of 2008-09. When editors contacted police about what they believed to be a theft, they learned the university had taken the bins and discarded them.
Executive editor William Rogers complained to Ray in an email, and the president responded that the action was "news to him," court documents said. Ray copied three university officials on the email and said one of them would get back to Rogers.
Director of facilities services Vincent Martorello called Rogers and explained that the university was enforcing a policy that restricts where off-campus newspaper bins could be placed; its purpose was to keep the campus clean.
Rogers responded that The Liberty was not an off-campus publication and should be granted the same treatment as The Daily Barometer, the university's student newspaper since 1896.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in its decision to overturn Aiken's ruling last year, said the policy cited by the university was unwritten, unannounced and no history of enforcement until it was used against The Liberty.
After the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit alleging violations of their right to free speech, the university adopted a written policy on newspaper bins which does not distinguish between on-campus and off-campus publications.
Because of the new policy, District Court Judge Ann Aiken in 2010 dismissed claims for injunctive relief as moot and denied claims for damages.
Rogers and other students involved with The Liberty have graduated. The paper born in 2002 is no longer published.