After a brief but heated free speech dispute, newspapers are back on Jersey City’s streets.
In a pair of tweets — one sent on May 25, the other on June 4 — the town’s mayor, Steven Fulop, announced that the city was clearing the sidewalks of news dispensers, comparing them to “trash cans.” At least 240 were impounded, including a box belonging to The Indypendent, without prior notice to publishers or the City Council. An uproar ensued.
In response, The Indy launched a public campaign for the return of the boxes that culminated in the arrest of this reporter on a disorderly conduct charge while speaking out against the mayor’s apparent violation of the First Amendment at a City Council meeting on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, the mayor fled an unrelated Lupus Awareness event after this reporter attempted to give him a copy of The Indy and to ask him questions.
“We set aside much of our regular work for a week to organize and lead a smart, strategic campaign for the return of all the boxes,” said the Indy’s Editor-in-Chief John Tarleton. “We weren’t looking for this fight. But when it came to us there was no way we could ignore such a fundamental assault on freedom of press, especially at a time when President Trump is attacking the media’s legitimacy on a near-daily basis.”
Behind the scenes, legal council for Newsday, publishers of amNew York, and for El Especialito threatened legal action against the mayor. Twenty amNew York boxes were seized, as well as dozens belonging to El Especialito.
“As you are undoubtedly aware, the distribution of newspapers via newspaper boxes is protected under the constitutional principles of freedom of speech and the press,” Joshua Wueller, an attorney for Newsday, wrote in a June 8 letter to Mayor Fulop, citing federal and state precedents dating back to 1877.
On Wednesday, The Indy replaced the paper’s Jersey City news box, which had been seized from the entrance to a downtown public library — this time placing the box in front of City Hall. By Friday morning, The Indy dispenser had been joined by a Metro New York box and more news boxes began to reappear in other parts of Jersey City as well.
A source familiar with the discussions told The Indy that the mayor has asked his legal team to draft a city ordinance governing the news boxes. Previously, on Twitter, Mayor Fulop apologized if the city had seized permitted news boxes. In fact, no permitting process existed. A spokesperson for the mayor did not return a request for comment by press time Monday.
Following his re-election to a second term last November, critics of the mayor have raised concerns regarding his increasingly unilateral decision-making style. They have cited not only his arbitrary announcement of the news dispenser purge but also a six-month moratorium placed on home demolitions instituted via executive order in March — later repealed unanimously by the City Council — and his efforts this spring to remove a Polish war memorial from downtown and replace it with a picnicking area.
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