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The case of the missing newspaper boxes

by Brian Clarey

Here’s a dilemma.

At some point over the last two weeks a good number of YES! Weekly newspaper boxes – between nine and 13 – have disappeared from downtown Greensboro streets. And because I am a very petty and vindictive individual I went into a tirade upon hearing the news.

I swore revenge on those who stole from us, and in my mind I concocted a short list of enemies who might have done this thing.

But then I cooled off and asked around. Ours were not the only newspaper boxes that were targeted, and some I spoke with seemed to think that they were not actually pilfered but were simply moved around.

I don’t know what happened, but I’m starting to get a better picture.

The timing is interesting. The area colleges are getting into gear and it’s possible, I suppose, that our boxes were victim to a university prank or perhaps a scavenger hunt – and I’ll admit that one of our smart-looking newspaper boxes might make great TV stand in a dorm room.

But also I’m wary of something more sinister.

The Greensboro Planning Department issued an undated document called “Downtown Streetscape Recommendations” in which they described the multitude of free newspaper boxes on our downtown streets “unsightly” and “distract[ing] from a cohesive visual environment.” Their response, which has yet to be initiated, is to install “attractive dispensers” for periodicals on pedestrian thoroughfares – commissioned by the city and likely to come with usage fees and restrictions.

Is it possible that this reshuffling and outright pilferage of newspaper boxes is an opening salvo in a war against the Greensboro press?

Unlikely. It’s difficult to imagine the city handling its business in this manner, and aside from the aforementioned document we have heard nothing about ordinances regarding our sole means of distribution. Mary Sertell of the Greensboro Planning Department, and one of the authors of the document, was surprised to hear of the incident.

“It’s definitely not us,” she said. Though she said that the subject of newspaper boxes “never fails to come up when downtown folks get together.”

She says that the subject will be broached in the future, but “right now there’s nothing in the works.”

Still….

This is pretty serious for a couple of reasons. Those boxes are the property of YES! Weekly; they cost a few hundred bucks each; and their presence on the streets of downtown Greensboro is a service to our readers who faithfully pick up their copies each week.

Also, this is a First Amendment issue, like it or not.

Because YES! Weekly is a free paper and dependent entirely on newspaper boxes for distribution, removing – or even moving – these boxes is a form of censorship, preventing the paper from getting into the hands of the people.

And as such, it is a crime.

It’s happened before. Just last month in Yonkers, NY the Westchester Guardian newspaper boxes were systematically pulled from the streets by Mayor Phil Amicone after weeks of editorials criticizing him and his policies. Guardian staffers took pictures of city employees loading the newspaper racks onto a truck, and now Guardian Publisher Sam Zherka is suing the city for $40 million.

The city of Nashville, Tenn. tried in 2005 to regulate newspaper boxes in its downtown area, offering city-owned aggregate racks for all of the area’s papers. It was voted down under pressure from the city’s editors and publishers and also because the city council was unwilling to take on the First Amendment.

The city of Atlanta tried to legislate newspaper boxes in its airport before it hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics. After the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times and USA Today filed lawsuits, US Circuit Court Judge Richard Story declared the city’s actions unconstitutional.

The city of San Francisco also tried to regulate its newspaper boxes in 1999 until a lawsuit filed by several newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Bay Guardian, the San Jose Mercury News and the New York Times, sued the city on the grounds of, you guessed it, violation of the First Amendment.

But in San Francisco the city and the papers reached an agreement, allowing 1,000 of the aggregate news racks in the downtown districts. The boxes are owned and operated by media conglomerate Clear Channel, which covers them with their own advertising, and the newspaper companies themselves decide who gets space in the racks, a serious blow to independent newspapers, alternative publications and the “little guy.”

And if something like that is in the works for our city, we are prepared to fight it.

But before we go off half-cocked we will try to solve the mystery of the disappearing newspaper boxes. If you have any information about them, please give us a call in the office, 336.316.1231. Ask for me. And if you are in possession of one of our boxes, bring it back to the office and we’ll give you $50, no questions asked.

The 50 bucks was my idea. If this is indeed some college prank, then half a hundred should provide sufficient motivation for the return of our property – 50 bucks is 50 bucks, and when I was in college I would have ratted out my dormmates for half that.

And if nobody comes forward with any of them, then another piece of the puzzle will be in place.

For questions or comments, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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