Armstrong's ruling came in a lawsuit spearheaded by SF Weekly and joined by numerous other publishing companies, including the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, USA Today, the New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. A separate lawsuit filed by San Francisco Frontlines has been merged into the case.
The ordinance, pushed by Mayor Willie Brown and adopted by the Board of Supervisors in June 1998, grants the Department of Public Works power to establish zones in the city where individual publications will not be allowed to place their own, free-standing newsracks on sidewalks.
Instead, the city plans to allow a private contractor to install large pedmounts -- centralized newsracks with spaces for eight publications -- at designated spots. About 12,000 individual newsracks would be forced off city streets, but only about 8,000 slots would be available in the universal racks.
The Department of Public Works would decide which publications are granted permits to use the boxes. The private contractor would be allowed to sell advertising space on the sides of the pedmounts.
City officials argue that the restrictions are needed to cut down clutter on some streets and corners. But the newspapers argue that the new rules are unnecessary, and threaten the First Amendment rights and economic health of large and small publishers by giving the city a means of controlling which publications will be made widely available.
On June 16, Armstrong granted the publishers' request for an injunction, preventing enforcement of the ordinance. Although she generally upheld the city's right to regulate placement of racks, Armstrong found that the ordinance -- on its face -- does not go far enough in making sure press rights are protected.
Specifically, she ruled that the ordinance does not require the city to make timely decisions on granting permits, and does not provide an adequate method for publishers to appeal if they are denied access to the universal racks.
Armstrong's ruling left open several other challenges that she said cannot be resolved until the city finalizes its rules for the program. "It is clear that the City has enacted a law directed at plaintiffs that potentially affects their First Amendment rights," Armstrong wrote.
The city may now revise the ordinance to address Armstrong's concerns, but a return to Armstrong's court in the future is likely as publishers press their objections to the ordinance.
By David Pasztor