Palm Beach, Fla., considers fees for newsgatherers

Wednesday, July 29, 1998

Responding to intrusions into the lives of many of Florida's rich and famous, Palm Beach city officials are scheduled tomorrow to discuss a controversial proposal that would categorize and regulate newsgathering.

(Editor's note: The council killed the proposal July 30. Whether it would be revived later was unknown.)

Under a proposal offered by Councilman Leslie Shaw, journalists engaged in producing documentaries, magazine shows and investigative reports would have to apply for videotaping permits similar to those required of commercial filmmakers under the city's motion-picture ordinance.

Shaw suggested establishing a legal distinction between “news protected under the First Amendment [and] a commercial venture [production] with an interesting subject matter that could be classified as a documentary.”

He recommended that news be defined as “an event requiring immediate coverage and urgent time-transfer of information to the public.”

Under the ordinance, programs such as Extra, Hard Copy or Inside Edition would have to pay a $1,000 application fee, spend $800 per day to film in the city, carry insurance and keep to certain designated filming locations.

Barbara Bolton Litten, a First Amendment attorney based in West Palm Beach, said that she was contacted for her initial reaction to Shaw's measure by a local reporter covering city government.

“What do these kinds of restrictions on access to newsgathering represent? Both are an attempt to define news and to control the content,” said Litten of the Steel, Hector & Davis law firm.

“The key problem with Mr. Shaw's proposal is that it would have the effect of restricting access to news, it would require newsgatherers to pay a fee to gather news and it would limit when and where newsgathering would occur,” Litten said. “The proposal also would be an unconstitutional content-based regulation on speech, [because] Mr. Shaw suggests that the city could decide which events were newsworthy.”

Frank Cerabino of The Palm Beach Post said that Shaw's measure is no big shock in this conservative town where celebrities such as Rod Stewart, Jimmy Buffet, Donald Trump and weighty business figures generate a lot of media coverage.

Palm Beach is a town in which road construction is prohibited during the winter season (when it might cause traffic congestion), men were once banned from jogging without wearing a shirt, and lawmakers worried about crime used to talk of installing cameras on bridges, Cerabino said.

To add to that, representatives of Neiman-Marcus department store set to open soon have agreed not to advertise in any newspaper (except local papers) or via electronic media for one year after opening. “I don't know of any other department store that would voluntarily give itself a gag order just so members of an insular community which doesn't trust outsiders can have the store to themselves,” Cerabino remarked.

Shaw recently defended his measure to the Post saying: “I think a lot of people are blowing things out of context. This isn't an issue of denying rights.”

Cerabino disagreed. “Once you set up a procedure [like Shaw's], what do you consider news? Who's doing the interpreting? 'We'll let people cover news that we don't mind reading.' I don't think they'd survive a constitutional challenge.”

In a recent column, “Nose For News Knows News vs. Palm's No News,” Cerabino wrote: “It's the kind of idea that reeks of violating the First Amendment. … What really got me worried about Shaw's idea was that he seemed prepared to judge what exactly 'news' was or wasn't. Shaw's idea of news is anything that is urgent or might result in immediate coverage. But under that definition, even the so-called mainstream news outfits could be denied access to tape something the town considers not newsy enough.”

Earl Maucker, vice president and editor of Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel said: “It's unconstitutional and it's scary to think that this kind of discussion is going on. We would be opposed to anything that is restrictive in gathering information.

“It's unfortunate that what I would consider legitimate news organizations get painted by this broad brush. The fact remains that once you start restricting access or leaving it to someone else to interpret what is news and what's is not, you've subjected yourself to all sorts of potential problems,” Maucher said.

Shaw is vacationing and was unavailable for comment.

“Mr. Shaw candidly admits that what he's suggesting may raise First Amendment issues,” Litten said. “So it's possible that even Mr. Shaw is aware of the limitations in the proposals that he's making.”