By: Mark Fitzgerald
An unusual court case that began with a chief attorney for West Bloomfield Township, Mich., charging Observer & Eccentric Newspapers’ circulation director personally with “littering” in connection with a sampling program has ended with a ringing First Amendment victory for the newspaper company, its attorney said last week.
“It was a wonderful victory. The only disappointing thing is that the township thought it was worthwhile going through these motions when we tried to tell them from the start that they wouldn’t get anywhere with this case,” Michael “Max” Sneyd of the law firm Williams Mullen said in a telephone interview.
Formal complaints of littering from homeowners who do not want to receive unsolicited newspapers are rare enough — but the West Bloomfield case was apparently unprecedented because at first a single individual, O&E Circulation Director LeeAnn Mitchell, was charged rather than the company.
Township Attorney Timothy L. Cronin filed the charge against Mitchell after residents Aleta and Kenneth Meskin complained that they had twice received copies of The Birmingham-Bloomfield Eccentric after asking the paper to stop delivery. The Eccentric, with full news and advertising content, is delivered to both subscribers and non-subscribers in the area.
Cronin had repeatedly refused informal requests from O&E to replace Mitchell as the defendant, but just before a court hearing he agreed to drop Mitchell from the case and charge the company instead.
Ruling from the bench, Judge Kimberly Small of the 48th District Court for the Township of West Bloomfield, declared that the littering ordinance could not apply to the newspaper because the product delivered was non-commercial speech entitled to full Constitutional protection, Sneyd said. In an e-mail summing up the decision for O&E executives, he wrote: “It was right down the line with what we argued — she basically took our brief/oral argument and regurgitated it back to us.”