Free Speech Victory in Fresno: Proof that You Can Stand Up to City Hall

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[Editor] Hannah Brandt and [Community Alliance board members], Pam Whalen and Camille Russell met with Esmeralda Soria on to stop the city from implementing an ordinance that would impact the Community Alliance newspaper’s use of newsstands. The proposed ordinance would have forced the newspaper to pay a fee for each newsstand on city land, pay for insurance for the newsstands, and buy newsstands from an out-of-state vendor. Soria helped stop the ordinance, which would have cost the newspaper thousands of dollars, from being considered at the City Council meeting on Thursday, Jan 12, 2017. Photo by Soria staff member.

 

By Mike Rhodes

Conservatives and Republican politicians do a lot of talking about deregulation, being supportive of small businesses and cutting down on government bureaucracy. Why then did they come with a proposed ordinance that would make it nearly impossible for the Community Alliance to distribute its newspaper in Fresno?

The proposed regulations that appear to have come from the outgoing Swearengin administration would have required this publication to pay a fee for each newsstand in a public location, required insurance, forced us to get a business license (something that is not required of nonprofits) and mandated that we buy future newsstands from a specific vendor in Texas.

When Community Alliance board member Pam Whalen asked Andrew Benelli from the Public Works Department, which was instrumental in bringing the proposed ordinance before the City Council, why these regulations were being proposed, he said that there had been complaints and the city had liability concerns. When asked to produce a copy of the complaints, Benelli was unable to come up with any evidence that complaints had been made. He also suggested that the city had liability concerns about unregulated newsstands on public property. Whalen said “the proposed ordinance was a solution looking for a problem.”

When the Editorial Board of the Community Alliance was informed of the proposed ordinance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was contacted. The ACLU reminded them that a similar struggle had taken place in Fresno in 2008 when the Fresno Air Terminal attempted to ban the paper from its facility. At the time, in a letter to Airports Operations Manager Ron Watson, the ACLU wrote that “the constitutional guarantee of press freedom limits the government’s authority to ban news racks from public property.” The letter went on to say “any action to regulate the number, size, or placement of news racks at the airport must be authorized by specific rule or regulation and must be narrowly tailored to serve an important government interest.” The letter from the ACLU stopped the City of Fresno from banning this alternative/independent newspaper from the airport.

A couple of years later, Fresno City College unilaterally and without notice removed all of the Community Alliance newsstands from the campus. It took weeks to sort through the bureaucracy, stand up for our rights and return the newsstands to campus. More recently, this newspaper was banned from the Fresno County Public Library on the flimsy excuse that it is too controversial and makes political recommendations during elections. That attack was also defeated and you can again find the Community Alliance at the library.

The Community Alliance Editorial Board and its allies swung into action, contacting City Council members, the Fresno Bee and other interested people to see what could be done to stop the proposed ordinance, which would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Community Alliance to distribute newspapers in public spaces. A meeting with City Council Member Esmeralda Soria was productive. She called City Council President Clint Olivier and asked him to remove the item from the agenda.

Olivier called me shortly after talking to Soria saying that he would ask the administration to pull the item from the agenda. He said that if they would not remove it he would. He also assured me that it would never be brought back. Olivier said that he had been a journalist before being elected to the City Council and he thought the ordinance was an outrageous attack against a publication that brings many important issues to its readers.

Had Olivier not removed the proposed ordinance from the agenda at the Jan. 12 meeting, it likely would have been voted down by a majority of the City Council. Community Alliance board members had been lobbying and believed they had the four votes needed to defeat the ordinance.

Incidents such as this are evidence that defending your right to free speech is a constant struggle, but if you are vigilant and are willing to work hard, you can stand up to City Hall and win.

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Mike Rhodes is a journalist and is the past editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.