Indianapolis City Council votes for new rules on news racks

Wednesday, August 4, 1999

In an effort to combat what it calls “visual blight,” the Indianapolis City Council earlier this week passed a proposal designed to replace individual news racks of varying colors with large, dark-green modular racks.

City officials say the measure, which the mayor is expected to sign, is necessary to eliminate sidewalk clutter caused by a proliferating number of news racks. The bill, approved by the council 20-6 on Aug. 2, states that “the unregulated placement and maintenance of individual newsracks … threatens the health, safety and welfare of persons” who use the sidewalks.

However, representatives from several large dailies, including The Indianapolis Star and News and USA TODAY, say the measure infringes on First Amendment freedoms.

Michael Womack, vice president of circulation and distribution for The Indianapolis Star and News, says the measure “certainly makes it more difficult to distribute the newspaper.”

“We oppose these modular racks because they will negatively affect our single-copy sales — many of which are impulse buys — and because we will lose our distinctive presence in the marketplace,” he said.

Jan Carroll, attorney for Indianapolis Newspapers, Inc., which publishes the Star and News, objects to the bill in part because it would allow small billboards to be placed on the back of the modular units. “This is a compelled-speech problem because it forces newspapers to associate with speech they may or may not support,” she said.

Carroll also questions whether the news racks create visual clutter. “It really is an eye-of- the-beholder thing. To me, it is the mark of a vibrant urban setting to have so many speakers.”

She also says the public-safety rationale offered by city officials is weak. “We requested the city to provide us with all the records of any tort claims that have been filed by people injured by news racks,” she said. “They could not even come up with a single record.”

There is a 60-day period between when the time the mayor signs the council's measure and the date the ordinance takes effect. “We are hopeful that we can work out some compromise with city officials before the measure becomes effective,” Womack said. “If not, we are prepared to explore any legal means necessary to fight” the measure.

The council passed the measure by a vote of 20-6 on Aug. 2.

Mark Mertz, assistant corporation counsel for the city of Indianapolis, said that “there are a large number of constitutional issues regarding the subject of regulating news racks. This ordinance was written with an eye toward several U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal court decisions that have examined other cities' news-rack ordinances.”