Philadelphia Papers Fight City About Newsracks, Again

Police want containers removed during the Republican convention.

Philadelphia police are considering the removal of about 200 newsracks from Center City sidewalks during the Republican National Convention, despite objections from the city’s publishers.

The specter of recent demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C. over international trade issues has Philadelphia police preparing for violent protests in their own city. City officials fear the newsracks will be used to smash windows or to store bombs during the first Republican convention in more than 50 years to be held in the City of Brotherly Love.

Jim McDonald, publisher of Philadelphia Weekly, said he and other publishers are trying to prevent the police from taking the racks because it would violate their First Amendment rights.

“My whole thought is, public safety is an important issue, but not to the detriment of free speech,” McDonald said. He said he has been working with other papers — including AAN-member Philadelphia City Paper as well as the city’s other weeklies and dailies — to keep the boxes where they are.

“We are willing to work with the city during the convention,” McDonald said. “We are not willing to take [the racks] off the streets.”

Police Inspector Jim Tiano said lawyers from both sides are meeting this week to discuss the issue. He said his department wants to remove only a few hundred of Center City’s 2000 newsracks — the ones that are located near chain retailers like Starbucks and The Gap.

“That’s where news boxes got picked up and thrown through windows [in Seattle],” Tiano said.

Alexander Wellford, a First Amendment attorney for the Society of Professional Journalists, said that in a court of law the publishers’ right to distribute their publications would be weighed against the police department’s obligation to protect its citizens.

The present dispute arises just a few months after Philadelphia officials and the city’s newspapers resolved a previous newsrack issue. City officials wanted to enforce the use of uniform, modular newsracks to replace the existing system of individual boxes, which they claimed was unsightly. The publishers objected. Ultimately, both sides agreed to a pilot program of “corrals,” open-ended enclosures used to house individual newsracks. This system will allow newspapers to keep their existing boxes, McDonald said.

The corrals are expected to begin appearing next month, McDonald said.

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