Last week, Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene‘s office ordered the removal of 17 newspaper boxes in front of the courthouse, claiming they were unsightly. The move, according to North Carolina Press Association attorney Amanda Martin, was illegal and violates of First Amendment protections on newspaper racks on public property.
The newspaper boxes after their removal. Photos by Jeff Tallman
“We removed them because they were just becoming quite unsightly,” Greene tells Xpress. “There were so many of them, and everyone who had a box there was contacted to pick their boxes up.”
Greene says she wasn’t sure if the newspapers, including Xpress, were notified beforehand. According to Assistant Distribution Manager Jeff Tallman, the county gave no notice, and he first realized the boxes were missing on June 29.
“There’s absolutely a First Amendment issue here. Newspapers have the right to be on public property,” Martin tells Xpress.”
Public agencies can establish guidelines for the “reasonable time, placement and manner of that right,” she adds. That authority covers incidents like removing boxes if they block a fire hydrant, but “they can’t just unilaterally decide to do that because they’re not pretty. It’s illegal to do that.”
The sidewalk is overseen by the city of Asheville and the county. Greene notes she did not consult with the city before removing the boxes. After their removal, the boxes were placed next to a storage container off Valley Street.
(The former site of the newspaper boxes.)
“At least twice, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the importance of the distribution of news through newsracks, and public officials do not have the authority to unilaterally make the decision to remove newsracks from public property,” Martin adds.
The first of those decisions, 1988’s City of Lakewood v. Plain Dealer Publishing Co., struck down a city ordinance that gave the mayor authority to decide where newspapers could place their racks. The second, 1993’s City of Cincinnati v. Discovery Network, Inc., struck down a city rule requiring commercial publications to purchase a permit. Cities, the court found, could not discriminate between commercial and noncommercial publications on public property, nor place limits on the number of news racks.
County officials have yet to elaborate if they sought legal advice before making the decision, or what legal justifications they have for removing the boxes.
— David Forbes, senior news reporter