The Supreme Court, striking down an ordinance from the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, Ohio, Friday limited communities' power to regulate the placement of newspaper boxes on public sidewalks.
The court, by a 4-3 vote, ruled that the Lakewood ordinance violated free-speech rights because it vested the mayor with too much discretion in deciding which boxes would be allowed.The ordinance empowered the city's mayor to grant or deny applications for annual permits to publishers to place the boxes, called newsracks, on public property.
Steven Allred, assistant Salt Lake City attorney, said the city has an extensive ordinance regulating magazine and newspaper coin boxes.
"I don't think there's any way of telling, without seeing the opinion, whether it's going to have any impact on us or not."
The Salt Lake ordinance is lengthy, dealing with zoning restrictions of where the boxes can be placed, as well as regulating installation, operation and construction. The Supreme Court's decision dealt only with the mayoral discretion. It sent the case back to lower courts to determine whether the ordinance, which also attached other conditions on the placement of newsracks, could survive constitutional attack if the mayoral discretion is dropped.
Writing for the court, Justice William J. Brennan said the ordinance could allow a mayor to deny permits based on a newspaper's content.
"A law or policy permitting communication in a certain manner for some but not for others raises the specter of content and viewpoint censorship," Brennan said.
Significantly, the court agreed with the American Newspaper Publishers Association and numerous publishing companies that placing newspaper boxes is a form of communication in a public forum.
A host of local government organizations had contended that no free-speech questions existed in the case. They said various conditions should be attached to the property rights created when a newspaper is allowed to place a newsrack on public property.
The Lakewood controversy began in 1982, when The Plain Dealer, a Cleveland newspaper, sought permission to place coin-operated newsracks in various locations in the community of about 62,000 residents.
The request was turned down in its entirety, and the newspaper subsequently sued the city.
A federal judge ruled that the ordinance, as amended, was valid. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated three parts.