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Tenn. town moves to limit sales of 'street newspaper'

7:48 AM, Nov 30, 2012   |    comments
Homeless man Brian Wolz sells the Contributor newspaper to motorists along a street in Franklin, Tenn.(Photo: John Partipilo, The Tennessean)
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FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- City leaders in this town south of Nashville are proposing new rules curbing all manner of financial transactions on city streets - including sale of a local homeless newspaper.

Citing a need to increase motorist and pedestrian safety, Franklin leaders this week gave initial support to changing city rules to make it illegal for drivers to be given items such as newspapers while they're inside a vehicle on a city street. Further, the rules would make it illegal for anyone on a city sidewalk to accept payment for anything from someone in a vehicle.

While the regulation clearly states that it's not intended to stop newspaper distribution, its effect would mean drastic changes in how the homeless vendors of the Nashville-based "street newspaper" The Contributor sell their papers, if at all.

At stake is the income of vendors including Brian Wolz, who sells the twice-a-month newspaper.

Wolz said he can earn as much as $120 selling the papers for $1 a copy. On bad days, Wolz said, he might earn around $70.

"That's really going to hurt us," Wolz said of the city's proposal. "If I don't pay my rent weekly, I will be living in my vehicle."

Franklin leaders say they're not targeting the sale of the Contributor or any newspaper but must make changes to address the potential hazards created by people selling items or collecting for charities while standing along city streets.

The change is good news for Alderman Beverly Burger. Last year, Burger said, she narrowly missed colliding with a Contributor vendor who stepped in front of her in traffic near the CoolSprings Galleria mall. No one was harmed, but Burger was shaken by the experience.

"It scared the living tar out of me," Burger said.

Franklin's decision to pursue its own rules changes comes on the heels of a recent legal victory by the nearby city of Brentwood in a lawsuit involving The Contributor.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell sided with Brentwood's stance that Contributor vendors should not be allowed to sell newspapers on the side of the road. The Contributor had 30 days from Campbell's Nov. 12 ruling to decide whether it would appeal the decision.

The Contributor's attorney Irwin Venick said the paper is still exploring whether to pursue appealing the decision in the Brentwood case. He declined to comment about Franklin's proposed street sales rules.

Attempts to reach Contributor Executive Editor Tasha French for this story were unsuccessful.

Franklin's proposal would force the paper to find a new way to sell if it wants to remain in Franklin.

"They can go door-to-door. They can get newsstands. They can sell subscriptions. There are any other number of things they can do," said Alderman Dana McLendon. "Nobody is entitled as a matter of constitutional law to do their business in the street. Not charitable solicitors. Not kids with lemonade stands. Not drug dealers. Not newspaper salespeople."

The model of street vendors selling single copies of newspapers would seem to be an outdated one in an age when news is communicated digitally, or sold to subscribers or at news racks, though neither the Tennessee Press Association nor the Alliance for Audited Media tracks the single-copy sales of newspapers by hand.

The North American Street Newspaper Association could not be reached for comment.

While Franklin officials say their revised regulations balance protection of free speech with safety, one expert on the First Amendment believes there might be grounds to challenge Franklin's rules.

"This is a publication where they don't have vending machines. They don't sell through stores. They only sell where there's traffic," said Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. "I don't know if it's living up to the spirit of the First Amendment to say 'Go sell your product in an entirely different way out in a field somewhere.'"

Franklin aldermen could vote on the rules changes at their next meeting on Dec. 11.

Kevin Walters, The Tennessean

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