Mystery over missing newspaper boxes deepens

Newspaper boxes are back in the news, with a downtown business owner saying this week that he saw city of Asheville workers removing newspaper boxes from a downtown sidewalk late one night, and this morning, some Downtown Commission members questioning the right of newspapers to place their boxes downtown with any legal protection.

At this morning’s Downtown Commission meeting, some members asserted that newspaper boxes are a nuisance that may require regulation, and doubted whether their removal without the owners’ permission was even a crime.

Boxes for several publications went missing around downtown in the week before Thanksgiving. Some were found late last week in an abandoned parking garage. After those incidents, the city of Asheville denied any involvement or knowledge in the boxes’ disappearance.

But Anoop Krishnan, owner of Mela Restaurant, says he saw city of Asheville workers removing newspaper boxes from Lexington Avenue. He said when questioned they claimed that newspapers now had to pay to place their boxes on city sidewalks.

Krishnan contacted Xpress after he read a story about the boxes’ disappearance. He said he had finished work on Nov. 19 or 20 around 11 p.m. when saw a truck with the city of Asheville logo and a blinking caution light. “There was a trailer in the back, with all these newspaper boxes bungee-corded down.”

He saw two people, a man and woman, removing boxes in front of Downtown Books and News. Krishnan thought it was odd to see city workers on the street that late, and asked them what they were doing.

“They had a list of print publications that they were removing and I asked them why,” Krishnan says. “The guy said it’s not free anymore, that you have to pay for it. ‘If you don’t pay, you don’t get space.’ I laughed, because I thought they were joking.”

“They were busy doing it as fast as they could: jumping out, grabbing boxes, putting them back and strapping them down,” he adds. “I thought it was kind of weird.”

Xpress has made a records request into the activities of city Public Works staff during the time in question and for all emails over the last few months pertaining to newspaper boxes. And according to city spokesperson Dawa Hitch, the City Manager’s office is inquiring into the situation.

At the Asheville Downtown Commission meeting this morning, newspaper boxes were on its agenda again. Some commission members have spoken in support of regulating boxes in the downtown area, asserting that the boxes and the graffiti and clutter that sometimes accrues around them can pose a nuisance and a hazard. However, several U.S. Supreme Court rulings sharply curtail the ability of governments to restrict the placement of newspaper boxes and to date City Council has not attempted to pass any ordinances regulating them.

Adrian Vassallo, a member of the commission and president of the Asheville Downtown Association, said that many merchants consider the newspaper boxes a major problem and don’t see why they have to pay to put a sandwich board out, while newspapers get to use sidewalks for free.

“One of the top issues that was identified in the Chamber [of Commerce’s] business walk survey was cleanliness,” Vassallo said. “Where there are large clusters of these boxes, there is a significant trash issue around those. They’re unsightly, they’re tagged, there’s trash accumulating behind them…. How is it fair for a merchant to keep their sidewalk clean when someone can plop a box in front of their business without permission and without a permit.”

“We have to look at something a little more stringent,” he continued. “You want a sandwich board, a sidewalk cafe, you want to paint your sidewalk — you have to get an encroachment. Why aren’t we holding newspaper boxes to the same standard that we hold our downtown merchants?… If Council truly wants a partnership with downtown, this is something they need to address.”

Commission Vice Chair Michael McDonough hoped that local publishers could get together and find a way to self-regulate as a group. He wondered if the city could use existing regulations to remove some particularly unsightly boxes.

Amy Mills, who manages circulation for the Asheville Citizen-Times, said that they work to keep their boxes in good condition, and would try to meet with other publishers. She also asked that the city or commission members forward complaints to the Citizen-Times so that it can handle them.

City Planner Alan Glines then noted that he hadn’t received any complaints about the boxes since “before 2012.” Others on the commission expressed some doubts about the severity of the issue. Dane Barrager said he hadn’t heard any complaints personally, and that the issue didn’t come up as a major problem at an October downtown forum.

Mountain Xpress Distribution Manager Jeff Tallman told the commission that the newspaper industry isn’t a monolithic bloc. “We’re as diverse and different a bunch of people as you can find,” he said. “I stand for that diversity; I’m proud to see the divergent opinions expressed on the sidewalks of Asheville.”

Tallman brought up Krishnan’s account of city workers removing the boxes, and asked the city “to shed some light on this.” Glines noted that city staff are working on answering Xpress’ records request, and added, “I don’t think the city was involved. But if someone had a city truck, I think there’s something we need to figure out.”

Commission member Dwight Butner speculated that the removal might be a prank, saying, “This sounds awfully proactive.”

McDonough asked “Is it a crime? If someone parks something on a sidewalk and it moves, is it a crime?”

Vassallo responded, “If there’s no legitimate permitting process, there’s probably no legitimate protections.”

However, according to North Carolina Press Association Attorney Amanda Martin, that’s not the case. Asked about McDonough’s query, “Is it a crime?”, Martin said, “That’s such an absurd question. What in the world would give them the right to take someone’s property?”

“If I lock my bike to bike rack [and] I don’t have a permit to do it, it doesn’t mean that somebody can just take it,” Martin said in response to Vassallo’s assertion that newspapers might not have legal protection from having their boxes removed by others. “I’m frankly flabbergasted that anyone would suggest that.”

Martin noted that the First Amendment and numerous court rulings around it set a very high bar for regulations of publications.

“For a government agency to regulate speech, the agency has to demonstrate there’s some compelling need to do so, that the regulation will actually fix the problem, and that there’s not another way that’s less intrusive on the First Amendment.” Usually, boxes are only regulated if there’s a clear safety issue, such as one blocking access to a fire hydrant, she said.

She added that generally the condition of boxes or clutter nearby isn’t regarded as sufficient reason to warrant their removal.

“If there’s no safety concern at play, it’s a much harder task for the court to be persuaded to say, ‘Well, these aren’t pretty,’” she said.

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