Newspapers ordered off Coupeville sidewalk

The freedom of the press was tested in Coupeville earlier this month and the press won. For now.

Coupeville town officials told several newspapers to remove their paper machines from the Front Street sidewalk next to Toby’s Tavern. It turns out the town, however, doesn’t have the authority to do that.

The mayor admitted that the town acted before fully understanding the free press issues surrounding such action.

In general, public entities can’t interfere with people’s ability to access the news. The town can regulate placement of the boxes, to some extent, if there is a policy in place. In this case, the town doesn’t have any regulations outlining how such machines are placed on sidewalks.

The Seattle Times brought the issue to light when they refused to move the newspaper boxes, citing First Amendment rights. Corey Digiacinto, spokesperson with The Seattle Times, said said there were several reasons why they kept the box in place. He said they are willing to discuss the aesthetics of the boxes with town officials.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said she made the decision to have the boxes moved. She had heard complaints from residents about the machines placed on the narrow sidewalk.

“Honestly, I have had complaints for a number of years on this,” Conard said. She delegated the contact work to Council Member Molly Hughes.

The Whidbey News-Times initially removed its machine after being contacted by the town. Employees at the Coupeville Examiner don’t know what happened to their machine, but said it wasn’t a big loss because the old machine wasn’t working properly. Coupeville employees did remove a yellow newspaper machine because they thought it was abandoned, Conard said.

Conard admitted to acting before properly researching the situation.

“We realize we don’t have the authority to have them removed,” Conard said. She is now asking papers to voluntarily remove the machines from the sidewalk next to Toby’s.

The mayor contacted the Municipal Research and Services Center to get sample regulations from other Washington cities about how to craft an acceptable regulation. She said a new regulation would probably dictate how much space is available on a walkway but wouldn’t include any standards concerning aesthetics.

The Whidbey News-Times returned its machine to the wood sidewalk Tuesday afternoon.

It’s the second free-press issue to hit the town in recent months. The Port of Coupeville banished other organizations from using its downtown kiosk after a peace group’s posters were questioned. That decision stuck.

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