Federal judge temporarily halts news-box removal in Chicago

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

A federal judge ruled late last week that First Amendment considerations preclude city officials from replacing news boxes with multi-racks on which individual papers cannot advertise—at least for now.

A coalition of six newspapers—the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Exito!, N'Digo, New City and Chicago Reader—sued the city in federal court, claiming a recently enacted city ordinance that calls for the elimination of individual news boxes violates the First Amendment.

The city justifies the law on the grounds of aesthetics and safety. However, the papers argue in Chicago Sun-Times, Inc., et al. v. City of Chicago that the ordinance unconstitutionally restricts free-press and commercial free-speech rights.

In granting a temporary restraining order until May 26, federal district court Judge Ruben Castillo said: “I find [for the plaintiffs on the request for a temporary restraining order] … because in the first instance, and this is the most important thing as far as this court is concerned, we're dealing with long-held, traditionally very highly respected First Amendment rights in this case. It's very clear that the First Amendment is implicated by the ordinance enacted by the city of Chicago.”

While the judge has yet to decide whether the ordinance is constitutional, he did say that “there are issues” as to whether the ordinance was “narrowly tailored” and whether or not the law is “fully content-neutral.”

The judge also said the ordinance “raises some First Amendment issues under the commercial speech doctrine because of the fact that everyone else is to be allowed to advertise, yet for some reason, newspapers themselves are not being allowed to advertise.”

Mark Hornung, vice president of circulation for the Chicago Sun-Times and organizer of the coalition, said: “The city's regulation violates the First Amendment for several reasons. First, it is not narrowly tailored or time-specific. Second, the courts have ruled that news distribution is subject to a certain degree of First Amendment protection. Finally, the ordinance is a violation of commercial free-speech rights.”

Hornung said the “novel” thing about this lawsuit is that “we have put together a coalition of paid dailies, free weeklies and free ethnic papers to advance First Amendment issues.

“The issue in this case is not about boxes, but about coercion. It will be a cold day in Chicago in July before the Chicago Sun-Times will tolerate coercion against any newspaper, be it a paid daily competitor or a free weekly,” Hornung said.

A call placed to attorneys for the city of Chicago was not returned.