State Baptist paper challenges postal hike linked to editorial

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)--The Oklahoma Baptist Messenger must pay an additional sum of approximately $800 in postal fees because of the contents of a recent editorial in the newsjournal, according to officials of the United States Postal Service.

John Yeats, editor of the Baptist Messenger, said the editorial was intended to educate readers about the "special editions option" which offers Oklahoma Baptist churches the opportunity to publish their own newsletters as part of the newspaper.

But local USPS officials reclassified portions of the article as advertising, recalculated the postage based on an increased percentage of advertising and charged the Messenger an extra sum of approximately $800 for mailing the issue in which the editorial had been published.

Yeats appealed the decision to USPS officials in Washington, D.C. "Editorials are First Amendment protected spaces, and in our nation no penalty should ever be assessed on editorial, free expressions," Yeats wrote to John J. Sadler, manager of USPS Business Mail Acceptance.

But Sadler replied that articles may sometimes be regarded as advertising.

"While I agree the material is not shown in 'display' form,” Sadler wrote, “using an editorial format to promote the publication's own services is still advertising."

Yeats had previously appealed the local ruling to Edward S. Walker, manager of the USPS Rates and Classification Service Center in Memphis, Tenn.

"In our opinion, the reading matter is considered publisher's own advertising," Walker wrote to Yeats. "Because it announces the availability and discusses the potential uses of the 'special edition' to get people to use it, the material must be considered an advertisement."

Bob Terry, executive secretary of the Association of State Baptist Papers, suggested Yeats' editorial would not ordinarily be considered advertising.

"My judgment is that nine out of 10 times, the editorial would not have been judged as advertising by local postal officials in other places," said Terry, who is editor of The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.

Terry pointed to a lack of uniformity among the way local USPS officials interpret postal regulations across the country.

"My estimation is that this was a very close call," Terry noted. "If John wanted to take this to court, he could make a very strong case for it not being advertising. He did not give any prices. He did not make direct comparisons."

Terry serves as the representative of the Coalition of Religious Press Associations on the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee (MTAC), which meets quarterly with USPS senior management.

He noted a general need among nonprofit mailers for the USPS to clarify what may be called advertising.

"This ruling about John's editorial indicates a need for more dialog between the Postal Service and nonprofits on what would cause a promotion story to be counted as advertising," Terry said. "The next time I'm in Washington for an MTAC meeting, I'm going to discuss it and see if we can get some guidance. This is an ongoing problem."

In recent months, the USPS has begun to dig back into previous years' mailings by nonprofit organizations, scrutinizing the contents of past publications to see if some material should have been counted as advertising.

This could have serious financial impacts on some nonprofit organizations, which may be charged retroactively with thousands of dollars in recalculated postal fees for past mailings.

"I know the Postal Service has gone back as far as two to three years looking for increased revenues," Terry said. "They've gone to print shops and said, 'Show me everything this customer has mailed for the past two or three years.'"

Terry called the trend a "terrible practice. ... For them to come back two years later and say, 'We've changed our minds. This is now advertising' is pretty poor business practice."

As MTAC committee members, Terry and others have voiced concern to USPS management about the trend. "But the Postal Service's response has been, 'Now it's the turn of the nonprofits'" for scrutiny, Terry said.

He called for greater understanding between the USPS and nonprofit mailers.

"The Postal Service is not the enemy," Terry declared. "We're really two business partners. We have to know more about how we can appropriately work together. The adversarial relationship will not help us."

For his part, Yeats has voiced appreciation for the USPS service to nonprofits.

"I am perpetually amazed at how you and your work associates handle the volume of mail as efficiently as you do," Yeats wrote in a letter to a USPS official in Oklahoma. "Without your help, our network of Baptist families would be very limited in our knowledge of the positive things that make our state such a great place to live."

But Yeats expressed surprise when local officials noticed the contents of his editorial, since most nonprofit mailings are not examined in detail by otherwise busy postal officials.

"Although we are complimented by the employee's desire to read the Messenger's editorials line by line, word by word, we think the USPS has crossed a sacred constitutional line," Yeats wrote in a subsequent editorial. "They have no right to determine a rate based on the content of our editorials. If they have the license to determine editorial policy by holding us hostage to a rate increase, then Americans no longer have freedom of the press."

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