Buncombe County’s removal of newspaper boxes may violate First Amendment

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


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14 thoughts on “Buncombe County’s removal of newspaper boxes may violate First Amendment

  1. Jon Elliston

    Grrr … that’s bad news. Talk about a place where a newspaper often comes in handy …

    One question: The article says that “Greene says she wasn’t sure if the newspapers, including Xpress were identified beforehand.”

    What does “identified” mean in this context? Thanks!

  2. Betty Cloer Wallace

    If not at the courthouse, then where else–as per our British common law heritage of posting written public legal notices through broadsheets, banns, newspapers, and such–other than on the courthouse steps?

  3. Dionysis

    “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”

    Dollars to donuts no legal advice was sought beforehand, and that only aesthetics were considered, not any “legal justification.”

  4. I just wonder how long it will be before someone sees a connection here. First the shutdown of URTV and now the removal of newspaper boxes. Is Asheville slowly having it’s Freedom of Speech eroded?

  5. Jeff Fobes

    Media Watcher: My recollection from dealing with U.S. Post Office restrictions on newspaper distribution boxes is that their regs apply to their private property, not to public sidewalks.

  6. Bert

    The Buncombe County Office is super uptight. I know an elderly couple that tried to write a 10,000 dollar check to the nature center and got turned down because the Buncombe County Office demands all donations have to be given directly to them so they in their infinite wisdom can decide where it goes.

  7. Dixie Barkdoll

    Wanda has too much power. If you ask about raises county employees have gotten, the answer is always “Wanda Green approved it” Also, when you want to ask a question of the commissioners, how do you do it? David Gantt always says they don’t give answers. We have no idea what is going on.

  8. Betty Cloer Wallace

    The town of Franklin engaged in a lengthy controversy about placement of newspaper boxes a couple of years ago. The legal conclusion was that a municipality (board) could designate places to provide the boxes on public property.

    Many main street retailers were unhappy about it, though, after the town board corralled the boxes in one location near the courthouse. The businesse owners wanted the boxes on the sidewalks in from of their stores, for obvious reasons, as did many residents.

    Accessible news does have a friendly look about it.

  9. Tsalagisister

    Gee denying folks constitutionally guaranteed rights is an art form to some of the sleaze in the courthouse.
    Check..It out…Trail Of Tears…
    They haven’t changed since they stole the land in the first place.
    I’d wager many have inbred Norman pillaging blood in their veins.
    The rich base their lives on the fallacy that money makes you a worthy person to rule.
    I’d argue the opposite.

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