A wide-ranging proposal to regulate newspaper boxes has stalled as officials ponder the First Amendment implications of its provisions.
City attorney Dale Clift said that while it's legal to impose rules on the placement of the boxes, the city has to be able to show it has "a very compelling reason" for each of the rules it imposes.
What that means, officials said, is that they can set standards to make sure boxes don't block sidewalks, block the line of sight for drivers and other steps that clearly protect public safety.
But requiring newspaper box owners to carry high-value insurance, follow municipal dictates about the color or shape of boxes and the like are at the very least problematic, officials said.
City Councilor Craig Minor, who heads the Ordinance Committee, said the entire issue needs further review before his panel can move ahead with a new statute.
Ed Gunderson, the publisher of The Bristol Press, told the committee this week that he understands its concerns about the proliferating number of poorly maintained boxes for free publications that have been popping up in recent years.
But, he said, rules aimed at clamping down on shoddy box owners shouldn't hinder the operations of newspapers such as the Press or The Hartford Courant, which take care in making sure their boxes are in good shape.
"We're maintaining them daily," Gunderson said, because the paper has a direct interest in selling copies from every box.
Minor said that a voluntary system that Stamford has used for years with the agreement of newspapers circulating there might be worth exploring.
Officials initially thought of targeting only the many neglected free newspaper boxes, which typically distribute real estate and dating advertisements.
But in exploring the law, they found they could not comply with constitutional provisions protecting a free press unless any new local ordinance was "content neutral," essentially preventing the city from treating the boxes of a dating monthly any differently than it would those hawking The Wall Street Journal.
Clift said that some of the provisions in the initial draft legislation that governed insurance, "the look and feel" of boxes and other matters are "somewhat suspect" under the law and may well need to be overhauled.
Gunderson said he would work with the city to try to come up with a statute that protected both the public and the press.
Clift said that whenever a new draft ordinance is ready for review, there probably ought to be another public hearing to see what people have to say about its terms.
Minor said that holding another hearing would be "a good idea."
What that means is that it's unlikely a new law could be finished before mid-July and it may well take many more months.
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