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Boston City Councilors failed to object to an oppressive ordinance regulating newsracks

Melvin B. Miller

Two claims that are common among the candidates for mayor of Boston are that their administrations will be open and transparent and that they will propose programs to aid small business. However, five of the candidates have supported an ordinance destructive to those policies. While serving on the Boston City Council, Felix Arroyo, Charles Yancey, Rob Consalvo, John Connolly and Michael Ross failed to object to an oppressive ordinance regulating newsracks.

An informed electorate is essential to an effective democracy. From the early years of the republic citizens have relied on the press to oversee actions of government. This information was originally published primarily in newspapers.

The role of the press has always been considered to be so essential that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides legal protections against restriction of the freedom of speech. Cities cannot impose taxes on the sale of newspapers. Also, the U.S. Post Office provides a reduced postage rate for newspapers that are mailed. Journalists have great latitude in writing about public figures without fear of suit for libel.

The exalted status of the press has traditionally created a conflict with elected officials, especially when news reports are unflattering. There is often an effort to rein in the press without violating their constitutional protections, but they usually fail. The Boston City Council has devised a clever way to circumvent those protections by passing an amendment to Chapter 16-38 of the city’s ordinance regulating newsracks.

The sole purpose of newsracks is to facilitate the distribution and sale of newspapers. That is a process that cannot be taxed. However, an onerous fee on newsracks is equivalent to a tax. It generates revenue from a procedure that does not impose an expense on the city. Government and elected officials should be leery about any action that might interfere with the free publication of the press.

Also, the imposition of excessive fees and penalties on the print media imposes a great financial burden on the press at this time. When the Boston Globe is sold for $70 million and the Washington Post goes for $250 million, there is clearly a major problem in the industry. There is little justification for the City Council to impose greater financial burdens on the press. Indeed, that is not a program to aid small business.

Voters should be wary of politicians who are willing to pursue policies to muzzle the press. A vibrant press is the main access to transparency in government.