NYC, papers in sidewalk squabble

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Who do the streets belong to?

A current legal case in New York state revolves around that question. The Learning Annex, the organization best-known for teaching New Yorkers how to hone their skills in areas from making soap to investing in tax-delinquent properties, has charged the city of New York with violating its First Amendment rights through enforcement of a local law that regulates news racks and boxes. Freedom of speech, goes the reasoning, includes the ability to disseminate information.

Known as Local Law 23 and in effect since April 2003, the law lays out a system of news-rack regulation, administered by the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Control Board. News-rack owners must register with the DOT and notify it of every box location-and boxes must be kept in neat and clean condition, free of graffiti and other unauthorized writing or markings.

Steven Schragis, national director of the Learning Annex, said the company's beef is not with regulating news racks' placement and location, but with the law's appearance and maintenance requirements. "Its terms are too vague," he said. The legal tussle is relevant to a variety of companies, such as the New York Press, the Village Voice and The New York Times, that, like the Learning Annex, distribute their materials to the public via news racks.

"What the hell is clean and neat?" asks George Freeman, assistant general counsel, The New York Times Co. "It is too much discretion for the government."

City officials have fined the Learning Annex anywhere from $250 to $500 for "dirty" news boxes. Attorneys for the Learning Annex argue that news racks are inherently dirty, and the law has a "chilling effect" on the company's First Amendment rights. The city says it intends to defend against the allegations.

Related to the current flap over news racks is New York's street-furniture RFP. Controversy is swirling over the city's attempt, as part of the RFP, to replace roughly 300 newsstands now owned and operated by independent proprietors, with structures owned and maintained by the contract winner. Newsstand operators, historically barred from posting ads on their structures, are not only in danger of losing their businesses, but will also be shut out of the revenue generated from ads on the new newsstands. Newsstand operators "are not too pleased with the scheme," said Robert Bookman, attorney for the Newsstand Operators Association.

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