Chilling the free press

The beleaguered news industry could take yet another hit in Minneapolis if the City Council approves an ordinance limiting the number of news boxes on its sidewalks and imposing an annual user fee for the boxes. The City Council is slated to have a public hearing on the matter today and we urge it to reject the proposal on grounds that its potential benefits do not outweigh the negative impact that it could have on publishers. City Council member Ralph Remington told the Star Tribune that the rows of boxes limit the ability of senior citizens and people with disabilities to exit cars and use sidewalks. He told the paper he would limit the boxes to no more than four in a row, with a mandatory three feet between each cluster. Furthermore, the ordinance would impose a $39 annual fee on the boxes to cover the costs of inspector time spent assuring the boxes meet new requirements. St. Paul imposed a similar ordinance in 2000, and the number of news boxes in the city unfortunately reduced by a third. Nevertheless, St. Paul didnâÄôt impose an unnecessary fee that would certainly chill small publishers from getting their message out across the city. And if that message comes with some unseemly graffiti, as Remington noted, impose an ordinance forcing publishers to clean it off their box. But this should not be a matter of aesthetics. It’s about a City Council limiting the free speech of publishers to an audience that most needs it: low-income citizens without Internet access. News boxes âÄî and newspapers âÄî may someday be a thing of the past. But their demise should not be accelerated by a governmental body.