NEFAC, ACLU, RI Press Association Oppose Proposal to Ban Unsolicited Newspaper Deliveries in Providence

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 | mail@nefirstamendment.org

Jan. 3 Testimony of NEFAC, ACLU and RI Press Association

The New England First Amendment Coalition submitted testimony yesterday in opposition of a proposed ordinance that would ban the unsolicited delivery of free newspapers in Providence.

Ordinance 11096, “Opt-In Mass Deliveries,” prohibits the unsolicited delivery of “items, packages or promotional materials by a for-profit entity” to a home and left outdoors. Any materials delivered in violation of the ordinance would be considered litter and fines could be imposed on the deliverer.

“The ordinance unfairly targets certain First Amendment-protected speech without adequately addressing the littering problem it intends to solve,” according to written testimony provided by NEFAC, the Rhode Island Press Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. “While well-intended, this type of ordinance has been ruled unconstitutional in municipalities across the country, and Providence need look no further than other cities in Rhode Island for examples of more reasonable alternatives.”

The City Council’s Ordinance Committee planned to discuss the proposed ordinance yesterday but delayed the hearing to address these First Amendment concerns. City representatives said they are currently working on an amendment to the proposal.

Ordinance 11096 singles out for-profit newspapers and similar communications while reserving the right to leave literature to other interests, wrote the groups. A charity or political candidate can leave donation solicitations at a private residence under this ordinance, but a newspaper providing coverage of local affairs is prohibited from leaving a copy in the driveway.

Distinguishing between for-profit and non-profit publications raises the constitutional bar that Ordinance 11096 must overcome because ultimately the distinction is unrelated to the littering problem the city is trying to prevent, the groups explained.

The groups highlighted Pawtucket’s litter law which avoids some of their First Amendment concerns with Ordinance 11096. Pawtucket doesn’t distinguish between commercial and non-commercial publications and does not ban unsolicited deliveries. Instead, it focuses on the cause of the litter and requires materials to be secured in a way where they don’t drift into public areas. This approach aligns much more closely with the goals of Ordinance 11096 and the rights provided by the First Amendment, the groups explained.

“While our organizations are sympathetic to residents looking to maintain litter-free neighborhoods,” they added, “we believe Ordinance 11096 will prove both ineffective and harmful to First Amendment interests.”

_______________________________________________________________________________

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.