A Hailey man initially charged with felony malicious injury to property pleaded guilty Tuesday to two misdemeanor counts of that crime, following a plea agreement, for throwing away about 1,700 copies of the Idaho Mountain Express in January, costing the company thousands of dollars.
Andrew Town Conner, 39, was sentenced to 16 days in jail, to be served over eight weekends, a $1,000 fine and a year of supervised probation. In addition, Conner must complete 100 hours of community service, pay $3,097 in restitution to the newspaper and write a public letter of apology to be published in the editorial section of the Idaho Mountain Express within 90 days. According to Conner’s lawyer, Stephen Thompson, Conner was unaware that he was breaking the law when he threw away stacks of newspapers in Ketchum and Hailey because he disagreed with the views expressed in the twice-weekly publication.
“Mr. Conner re-grets this entire thing,” Thompson said. “He is a rule-of-law kind of guy.”
According to Conner, he did not believe he was committing a crime because the newspaper stands said the papers are free, and therefore he did not attribute a financial value to them. However, the newspapers are labeled, “One copy free. All others 50 cents.”
Prosecuting attorney Matt Fredback said that from the advertised price of the paper, the total loss was $840, but that the actual cost of one copy including labor and production is $1.73, meaning the actual loss was more than $2,000. But because state law requires that a charge of malicious injury to property be based on the advertised cost of the product, the prosecution amended its complaint to two misdemeanors, rather than a felony, because that calculation was less than $1,000.
Prior to sentencing, Idaho Mountain Express Publisher Pam Morris gave a statement to the court, saying the incident was more than just one action by one person, but rather part of an “emerging national antipathy toward news organizations,” which boiled over into a fatal incident in Annapolis, Md., at the Capital Gazette, where five staff members were shot to death. Morris said this antipathy has been fueled in part by a president who “alleges all news is fake news,” and that the “press is the ‘enemy of the people.’”
“What was destroyed was not just ink on paper,” Morris said. “Stop treading on the rights of the Constitution.”
Presiding Judge Daniel Dolan took time to internalize Morris’ statement, as well as the arguments presented by counsel, before issuing a sentence. Dolan said Conner had stolen the public’s “right to know” by throwing away hundreds of newspapers from at least half a dozen businesses in Ketchum and Hailey. More importantly, Dolan said that had there been no financial value to the newspapers, he believed Conner would have continued to throw away the publication.
“This community relies on that paper,” Dolan said, adding that Conner was exercising his own right to free speech with a vanity license plate that alludes to his political ideologies, and that his disagreement with the publication did not give him a right to stifle freedom of the press and the public’s right to information.
Police traced the crime to Conner through security video at two locations where newspapers had gone missing.