Buncombe County approved the temporary return of three newspaper boxes to their former home outside the courthouse but is continuing to ban the others removed late last month.
The move comes after Mountain Xpress and the Asheville Citizen-Times jointly retained attorney Amanda Martin to write a letter challenging the county’s decision. The Raleigh-based lawyer also serves as general counsel to the N.C. Press Association.
“The First Amendment basis for newspaper distribution is so clearly established by courts — all the way up to the Supreme Court — that I was astonished to learn of the county’s unilateral decision to remove newspaper boxes from in front of the courthouse,” Xpress Publisher Jeff Fobes says, calling the county’s action “capricious.”
“What more natural place is there to distribute newspapers than in front of local government buildings? A key role of newspapers is to watchdog government activities. And these buildings are where citizens go to petition their government.”
County Manager Wanda Greene, who ordered the boxes’ removal due to what she called their “unsightly” appearance, now says their return is only temporary while the county works with the city of Asheville to develop a policy concerning that stretch of jointly owned sidewalk.
“We have to put benches there. … We’re working with the city to find a permanent home for these boxes and [place] some rules around them,” Greene explains. “Because to me, these people are just sitting them down, and we just need to know that they’re there and have some ability to know who to call when they get trash all over everywhere, too. … So I do think you’ll see both of us come together with a set of standards and an application process.”
In the meantime, the other 15 or so bins that were there are still prohibited, says Greene. “Those are the only three we’re going to let sit down, and those are just the ones with the news circulation,” she reports, noting that many of the other boxes contained real estate publications. “After Bele Chere is over and [staff] have time to think,” she reports, the two local governments hope to draft a policy.
Greene says she decided to allow the temporary return of the three boxes after conversations with those publications’ publishers. “I had a conversation with Randy Hammer at the Citizen-Times, and as we talked through it, it was kind of like, ‘I’ll find a temporary solution so that the needs are met.’ I had a conversation with David Morgan [of the Asheville Tribune], and I had a conversation with Jeff [Fobes],” Greene said Friday.
Fobes, however, maintains that he never spoke with Greene. “She’s mistaken,” he reports. “She never contacted me concerning this issue, by phone or email.
“The Asheville Citizen-Times and Mountain Xpress reject the notion that the county can regulate the distribution of newspapers without a policy, or simply because one day the county manager wakes up and decides she doesn’t like certain papers in certain places,” Fobes declares. “One wonders what mistaken sense of authority the county is laboring under, if its officials think they can remove newspaper boxes with no warning and no basis other than they don’t like the looks of the boxes or the publications.”
At this writing, the Asheville Citizen-Times and Asheville Tribune boxes have been returned to their original locations. Mountain Xpress plans to follow suit on Monday.