Editorial: Careful with paper boxes

The Town of Coupeville learned a useful lesson when it tried to clear newspaper boxes from the sidewalk in front of Toby’s Tavern, where they have sat for many years without incident.

The mayor, responding to complaints that were apparently heard by her ears only, decided to have the paper boxes removed. Town Councilwoman Molly Hughes was charged with informing the papers of the decision.

To her credit, Hughes did call around to ask the affected newspapers to remove their boxes. Some complied, even the Whidbey News-Times, which made a mistake of its own. An employee with good intentions removed the box, not realizing the issues involved.

The Seattle Times did an outstanding job representing the newspapers’ interests, refusing to remove its paper box from the sidewalk. Being the state’s largest newspaper with thousands of paper boxes, it realized that Coupeville’s request was not an isolated incident. Newspapers around the country have been on the defensive in recent years as city managers with neatness fetishes or safety obsessions claim they want the sidewalks made either tidier or safer, so newspaper boxes have to go. The courts have generally sided with the newspapers, ruling the First Amendment right to a free press trumps the government’s desire to control the sidewalks.

Newspapers are usually happy to work with local governments on safety and esthetic issues, but we aren’t going to give an inch in our right to make our products available to the public. Newspapers are essential to our democracy, and that’s worth a little clutter.

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