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Wednesday, Jan 6 1999
Why Are We Suing the City
As regular readers probably have guessed, I am not particularly sentimental. My lack of emotional reaction to events short of nuclear war is, in fact, a subject of some hilarity among friends. Today, though, I will break personal form to announce that I am ... um ... deeply pleased to be working for SF Weekly.

I am pleased because, as we prepared to go to press Tuesday, the final touches were put on a lawsuit that will likely have been filed against the City and County of San Francisco by the time you read this column. This much-needed lawsuit is sponsored by the Weekly's parent company, New Times Inc., and joined by the publishers of the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, USA Today, the New York Time, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Los Angeles Times.

Quite simply, the lawsuit seeks to stop Mayor Willie Brown and eight of his leashed pets on the Board of Supervisors from unconstitutionally granting themselves the power to choose which newspapers San Franciscans can, and cannot, read.

On Tuesday, the city's supervisors approved a contract authorizing the replacement of all private newspaper racks in the northeast quadrant of the city with a government-mandated set of centralized newsracks. These newsracks will be installed by a New York street-furniture firm. Each rack will have slots for just six different newspapers. Individual newsracks will be banned.

By government fiat, anyone wanting to distribute a newspaper profitably on the streets of San Francisco now has to seek government approval to get space in the new central newsracks. That approval, controlled by the city's Public Works director, can be withheld for the vaguest of "reasons."

If left to stand, this newsrack scheme will give Mayor Brown -- and future mayors -- unparalleled leverage over the news media of this city. A newspaper could choose to print articles that criticize the mayor -- but that decision could also cost the newspaper space in the city-controlled newsracks and, eventually, its financial life.

The newsrack lawsuit (set to be filed in federal court Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning) contends that the city's newsrack scheme violates the Constitution's free press and due process provisions in many, many ways. For me, the most compelling argument is this one, taken from our legal complaint:

"The city is attempting to impose, without adequate safeguards, a complicated, clumsy and slow prior restraint. ... It is an unconstitutional burden not only on the newspapers' right to distribute, but also on the public's right of access to those publications."

There are numerous reasons why this many major newspapers have joined in legal action. Some of those reasons are financial. There is, however, one overwhelming reason suit absolutely had to be brought: Willie Brown and a majority of the Board of Supervisors have attempted to out-and-out abrogate the First Amendment in San Francisco and give unconstitutional power to themselves and to their successors.

I am deeply pleased to be working for a newspaper willing to fight this type of -- and I use this term very advisedly -- un-American activity. You ought to be deeply horrified that Mayor Brown and his allies would make such a legal confrontation necessary.

About The Author

John Mecklin


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