Magazine article Editor & Publisher

News Media Must Meet Challenge of Newsbox Regulation

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

News Media Must Meet Challenge of Newsbox Regulation

Article excerpt

News media must meet challenge of newsbox regulation

Since the end of World War II, newsboxes have become increasingly important to single-copy sales, particularly in metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

As the nation's population shifted to urban centers, the availability of home-delivery carriers and corner newsstands steadily declined. Local governments have responded to the proliferation of newsboxes with a myriad of regulatory measures that often violate the First Amendment and threaten the broad dissemination of the news.

A stroll down the streets of major urban areas often reveals dozens of newsboxes of various shapes and colors clustered around lampposts or utility poles or set out in long lines near corners.

Newsboxes, viewed by urban planners as unsightly clutter, are clustered in airports and other transport terminals as well as on city streets, but attempts to regulate this modern phenomenon have endangered a vital method of news distribution.

The danger to a free press has been intensified by the invasions of "wolves in sheep's clothing": large boxes featuring paid-space advertising on the sides. By housing sporadically published magazines or papers, these boxes masquerade as constitutionally protected newsboxes.

The issue was faced squarely earlier this year by Judge Frank H. Easterbrook in the Chicago Observer Inc. case which was before the United States Court of Appeals. Judge Easterbrook noted that:

"Newsracks are ubiquitous in American cities. The city block in Chicago that comprises the federal courthouse boasts 19 racks for 11 papers or pamphlets: the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Financial Times, Investor's Daily, the Daily Herald, the Southtown Economist, the Learning Annex, the Relcon Apartment Directory and the Chicago Observer."

Explaining that "function dictates form," Judge Easterbrook described the size and characteristics of a legitimate newsbox. In contrast, he described the Observer's oversized "ad boxes" as essentially nothing more than "billboards for businesses unrelated to" any legitimate publication.

To cope with this obtrusive advertising gimmick, Chicago enacted an ordinance "to get the Observer's billboards off the sidewalks": banning off-premises ads on the sidewalks, limiting the size of newsracks, and regulating the type of advertising displayed on newsboxes.

Judge Easterbrook found that Chicago's ordinance met the reasonable time, place and manner requirements of the First Amendment. In doing this, he noted that cities may "curtail visual clutter" and that newsboxes "the size of sandwich boards reduce the quality of life," rejecting the idea that newsbox ordinances must be "part of a comprehensive beautification plan."

What is noteworthy for legitimate publications is that the court recognized that the Constitution required the city to "leave ample channels for communication."

At all times Judge Easterbrook focused on the distinction between these "ad boxes" and the legitimate newsboxes that comprise the constitutionally permitted norm. For example, in permitting the city to curtail clutter he pointed out that the Observer could easily fit in a legitimate newsbox of the type used by publications such as the Chicago Sun-Times or the New York Times.

Legitimate regulation of newsboxes will continue to be debated; the nation's newspapers must watch carefully as this area of law develops. …

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