Stand and Deliver 

Committee debates removing downtown news racks

Committee debates removing downtown news racks

Imagine The Tennessean and the Scene not only in agreement but ready to lock hands in a bizarre and ugly struggle. That’s what would likely happen if an obscure Metro Council subcommittee recommends legislation to rid downtown of individual newsstands.

Claiming that growing numbers of newsstands pose aesthetic and safety concerns, the Bicycling, Pedestrian, & Traffic Calming Advisory Committee is considering an ordinance to require single modular news racks instead. A private company would set up and stock the racks, each of which would display advertisements like bus benches.

”It’s an eyesore,“ huffs committee member Jeff Themm, director of the Central Business Improvement District, about the number of newsstands downtown. ”They are all different colors and sizes and while some are maintained quite well, others are not even touched.“

Officials representing—count ’em—the Scene, In Review, Nashville Business Journal,The Tennessean, and USA Today all indicate that they would resist an anti-newsstand ordinance. For obvious reasons of self-interest and, we hope, commitment to constitutional principles, few publishers will support any law restricting where they can and cannot put a newspaper stand.

”You are far better off letting the publishers regulate themselves rather than trying to force something. That’s just a matter of common sense,“ argues Bill Willis, attorney for The Tennessean and USA Today. Adds Scene publisher Albie Del Favero, ”We’re opposed to it. It would set a bad precedent and would infringe on our freedom of speech.“

You wouldn’t think that ”news-rack blight“—as its detractors call it—is a hot-button issue among downtown business owners and commuters. Indeed, a mayoral advisor couldn’t recall any complaints about the number of newsstands downtown. But members of the advisory committee, which includes earnest government officials and private citizens alike, talk about news-rack proliferation with an odd degree of disdain.

Themm, who says that he himself has received wide-ranging complaints about rack clutter, suggests that he would likely support an ordinance that would eliminate individual newsstands in favor of a uniform rack like the one pictured here.

”Personally, I like the modular units. They look a lot cleaner. They are well maintained and they are of no cost to the city and publishers.“

Citing First Amendment protections, publishers nationwide have resisted legislation intended to make modular units a reality. Above all, they want to retain the ability to move their newsstands as pedestrian traffic changes. The city of San Francisco recently passed a rather aggressive ordinance that galvanized local publishers to sue the city.

”Commercially, it could be really disastrous especially to free weeklies that rely on having all their papers picked up,“ says John Mecklin, editor of SF Weekly, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. ”The real thing is that it gives authority to the city on who gets a rack and who doesn’t. It gives them a level of control over the media that has never been contemplated before.“

Tom Trento, co-owner of the modular news-rack company City Solutions, says that with his firm’s approach, everybody wins. ”We clean up the clutter, provide for complete safety and are totally free to every publisher and to the city. There is no tax money and no publisher money.“

A better debater than many of his media counterparts, Trento has been one of his industry’s loudest voices. In Nashville, he has been especially vigilant, going so far as to hire lobbyist Joe Hall of the Ingram Group. But interestingly, Trento’s own background highlights some of the concerns about the modular unit concept.

In the late ’80s, Trento was a fervent anti-abortion activist. During one rally, the Miami Herald reported that Trento bore signs reading ”God Loves All Babies“ and ”Hitler Would Have Loved It.“ The paper also reported that Trento had been arrested for trespassing outside a Denver abortion clinic.

Trento’s political views might pose concerns, since publishers worry about the kinds of ads his modular units might display. After all, how would the liberal Tennessean or Scene like it if Trento posted a graphic anti-abortion ad on the back of his modular units storing their papers?

”Those are legitimate fears, but we’ve dispelled them in practice,“ Trento says. ”We’d be bound by our advertising policy and a review committee.“

An ex officio member of the committee, Councilman Phil Ponder, would likely sponsor an anti-news-rack ordinance if the committee recommends it. He says that he’d probably model the ordinance after one passed in Indianapolis.

While similar ordinances have prompted litigation, Indianapolis’ has fared relatively well. The city, which once had 1,000 freestanding newsstands, now has 80 modular racks.

Local officials have trumpeted Indianapolis as a poster city for modular units. But that city’s experience hasn’t been a complete success. For one, USA Today and the Chicago Tribune aren’t participating, and as a result, those newspapers have no stands in downtown Indianapolis. Also, while the city hasn’t ended up in court over the matter, that may stem more from the good will of the local publishers than the strength of the ordinance itself.

Here in Nashville, publishers aren’t likely to be as compliant. The Scene’s Del Favero says rather bluntly that he will initiate a lawsuit if an anti-news-rack ordinance is passed. Other publishers hedged their bets but would not rule out a legal remedy.

The committee hopes the publishers will develop their own voluntary plan to regulate clutter. But for nearly 10 months, many publishers have adopted obvious stall tactics—a move that could backfire if the committee runs out of patience and suggests an ordinance without their input.

Mayor Bill Purcell isn’t likely to get behind any kind of ordinance because of First Amendment concerns, aide Patrick Willard says. David Hudson, an attorney with the First Amendment Center, says it would be tricky to craft an anti-news-rack ordinance that would pass constitutional muster. And at the very least, Hudson says, it would violate the spirit of the First Amendment.

”News racks are a fundamental way for the public to get access to the news, and it’s important to realize that the liberty of circulating is as important as the liberty of publishing,“ Hudson says. ”If you don’t have the liberty of circulating, your publication is of little value.“

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