Pittsburgh councilman drops news rack bill, plans to introduce new measure

Tuesday, February 2, 1999

Pittsburgh City Councilman Richard Hertzberg dropped his news rack regulation bill last week after a public hearing at which newspaper officials and their attorneys voiced constitutional objections to the measure.

However, Hertzberg is scheduled to present a revised news rack regulation today before the city council, one that he says will meet concerns expressed at the public hearing.

The recalled bill, introduced last fall, would have provided that no person could install or maintain a news rack or news vending machine without first obtaining a permit from the city's Department of Public Works.

In addition, the measure would have imposed numerous restrictions on news rack locations, ruling out sites that “endanger the safety of persons or property, obstruct the vision of motorists, or unreasonably interfere with or impede the flow of pedestrian or vehicular traffic or the ingress into and egress from any building.”

The measure detailed more than a dozen distance restrictions for news racks. The proposal also would have required news rack distributors to agree to “indemnify and hold the City of Pittsburgh harmless from any and all liabilities, judgements, damages or expenses that arise from the placement, installation, maintenance, use, presence or removal” of the news racks.

Another section of the proposed ordinance would have provided that “in the event that the location of or condition of the news rack or news vending machine poses an immediate health or safety hazard to the public by creating an emergency condition, the Department may remove or impound the news rack or news vending machine immediately and without prior notice.”

Hertzberg said he introduced the measure for safety and aesthetic reasons. The bill included language that said it should be interpreted to “facilitate the distribution of publications in public places as contemplated by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

However, at a Jan. 28 public hearing, several newspaper officials and attorneys said the bill would infringe on newspapers' First Amendment freedoms.

E.J. Strassburger, an attorney for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, spoke out against the measure at the hearing, saying there were “constitutional, practical and philosophical problems” with the bill.

“There was a serious problem in the ordinance in the unbridled discretion that city officials had to determine when there was a congestion problem and whose First Amendment rights would have to be sacrificed to solve this alleged congestion problem,” Strassburger said.

Strassburger said he reminded city officials of the words of Thomas Jefferson: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”