November 28, 2006
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer
A prolonged conflict that pitted the right to free speech against the right to free access to city sidewalks ended quietly Monday.
The battle, which has dragged on for three years, set city officials who wanted to regulate the placement of newspaper boxes against local media companies, which said a restrictive law would hinder one of America's most fundamental rights - the distribution of information.
The city council unanimously passed an ordinance Monday limiting the placement of news racks on city streets. While the boxes will continue to be allowed, restrictions are placed on their location. The adopted ordinance is a compromise from more restrictive drafts.
"It is truly a balancing test," said Jeff Meyer, an associate law professor at Quinnipiac University. "Certainly a city should have some ability to regulate the placement of news racks, if they were wall-to-wall-to-wall or in the middle of streets and sidewalks.
"But the question is how far can the city go and still respect free speech?"
Cities across the country, from Los Angeles to Boston, have similar ordinances. According to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, Hartford will join several other municipalities in the state that already have news box ordinances, such as Bridgeport, Greenwich, Middletown, West Hartford, East Hartford and New Canaan.
City officials and lawyers representing The Courant, Hartford Advocate and other local Tribune Co. media, agreed Monday that common ground had been found.
"My sense of this is that everyone understands we tried to come up with something fair," said Councilman Robert Painter, who spearheaded the effort to draft the ordinance.
In addition to limiting where news boxes can be placed, the ordinance requires that they be licensed for a fee and that the owners are responsible for their maintenance.
The law is aimed at what city officials say is a scar on the city's public face - news boxes that crowd street corners, topple to the concrete and litter the sidewalks with their contents. Making the problem worse is a proliferation of free circulars that contain mostly advertising and are often held in flimsy, brightly colored plastic boxes crowded together on corners in unsightly clusters, officials said.
"We have received a lot of complaints about these boxes being tipped over, papers being strewn about," said John Bazzano, president of the city council. "Unfortunately, the residents of the city have to deal with that ugliness."
Earlier versions of the ordinance - which would have eliminated from the streets many of the boxes that deliver daily and weekly news to city residents - had drawn criticism from Tribune's lawyers. William S. Fish Jr., a lawyer who represents The Courant, The Advocate, and CareerBuilder Jobs4U, said Monday, "The news is no good unless people can get their hands on it and read it."
To make its argument, Tribune leaned on the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech but also - according to precedent as far back as an 1874 Supreme Court ruling - says circulating news is so essential to publishing that the publication has little value without it.
Fish said Monday that he is satisfied with the latest version of the ordinance, and that he was pleased that the city council "listened to us, collaborated with us and addressed the concerns of all their constituents."
"It's a workable ordinance," Fish said. "It is a good compromise. It is not ideal, but it is workable."
The ordinance prohibits news boxes from being within 5 feet of a driveway or crosswalk, and prohibits the same publication from having boxes within 250 feet of each other on the same side of the street in a business district; 500 feet in a residential district.
News boxes must be registered with the city at a fee of $12 per location for each rack. The idea of the fee is to cover any costs the city may incur from the news boxes, such as cleaning litter or repairing public property. News racks that are locked down must have a rubber coating on their chain to protect against the metal links damaging the city's light poles and street signs.
Any company with a news box would have to carry a substantial insurance policy against personal injury claims.
Bhupen Patel, former director of public works in Hartford, said the city had received numerous complaints about news boxes from the disabled and from property owners who felt the boxes detracted from their property value.
Once the issue got Patel's attention, he said he started to see other problems too.
The chains locking the boxes down would damage the city's ornamental lights. Dirt and sand from the winter snow removal would stay underneath the boxes for months.
Rows of the racks would keep handicapped drivers from exiting their cars and people in wheelchairs would be forced into the streets because curb cuts were not accessible.
"There was a need to get some reasonable control," Patel said.
For some, the concern is not simply abstract or about aesthetics. Stephen Thal, who is blind and hearing impaired, often walks with his red-tipped cane from his Woodland Street home to find that news boxes crowd many of Hartford's corners and stand in his way - forcing him off the sidewalk and onto the grass, or worse, into the street.
"On some corners, it is not like there is just one box," Thal said. "Sometimes there are three, four and five of them."
By restricting the ordinance to news racks alone, though, the city may have left it open to "a claim that it is targeting and taxing speech," said Meyer, the Quinnipiac law professor.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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