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Boxed In: D.C. Moves To Regulate Sidewalk Newspaper Boxes

Newspaper boxes are plentiful—and unregulated—in D.C.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Newspaper boxes are plentiful—and unregulated—in D.C.

Newspaper boxes are a common sight on sidewalks or outside just about any Metro station. Their colors are as diverse as the publications inside: blue boxes offer The Washington Post, red ones hold The Washington Times and black-and-orange play host to the Washington City Paper, to name a few.

But while the metal boxes may be an age-old feature of the urban landscape, they’re also a source of complaints for many community activists. They say the boxes all too often serve as de facto garbage cans, they crowd sidewalks, block crosswalks and are often vandalized, never to be fixed.

For years, D.C. officials have washed their hands of the problem, saying that they don’t have the legal authority to do anything about them. But that could soon change.

A new set of regulations, proposed in August by the D.C. Department of Transportation, would:

  • Require publishers to receive permission before placing a box on public space
  • Pay $5 per box they place
  • Take out liability insurance worth $300,000 for those publishers with fewer than 100 boxes and $1 million for those with more.

The regulations would also mandate that boxes be kept clean and in working order, be stocked with “current” publications and not remain empty for more than 30 days, and regulate where exactly they can be placed and what they can and cannot be affixed to. They would apply both to newspapers and other publications, including commercial services like real estate guides.

According to Monica Hernandez, DDOT’s spokeswoman, the regulations reflect a number of concerns that city officials have had with the boxes over the years.

“Boxes were often placed in pedestrian crosswalks and blocking ADA access; when storms came the boxes ended up in the street or across sidewalks; they are knocked over and used as park benches; there were and still are many abandoned boxes that are used for storing clothing for homeless and drugs for criminal activity,” she says.

For some, the boxes are just an eyesore. Marty Tillman has lived in Glover Park for 20 years the boxes seemed like unaesthetic blights on new sidewalks, after streetscape improvement project was completed along Wisconsin Avenue earlier this year.

“The boxes were everywhere,” he says. “I got annoyed because here we had just finished this project, and these boxes just bothered me enormously.”

DDOT officials say similar complaints about the boxes have come in over the years from civic associations, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, Business Improvement Districts, and even D.C. Council members. And though the agency regulates public space, their authority to remove newspaper boxes is limited; the new rules, which have been in the works since 2007, are aimed at bringing some clarity and order where little before existed.

For newspaper publishers, though, the rules are both a potential infringement upon their First Amendment rights to distribute freely and an unwanted expense.

“We have a number of concerns about the proposed regulations,” says Kris Coratti, The Washington Post’s spokeswoman. The Post has several thousand boxes in the city and the $5 fee and requirement for insurance would be an economic hit to the paper.

For smaller local publishers, the fees and limits on box placement can be more acute. “This is not just about large newspapers here,” says Ellen Valentino, who works with the Maryland, Delaware and D.C. Press Association. She notes that many of D.C.’s community-based and niche newspapers rely on the boxes for circulation, and could easily go under if they had to switch over to an at-home delivery model.

Valentino says while she opposes the rules as written, the group’s member publications don’t disagree that some basic regulations would be welcome. Still, the per-box fees and limitations on where boxes can be placed and what they can be affixed to make them unworkable in their current state.

At a hearing in the D.C. Council Thursday, DDOT officials defended the need for the regulations, but admitted that they might have to rewrite them to address the newspapers’ concerns.

For Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who heard Tillman’s concerns and oversees DDOT, the agency should strive to draft neutral rules that allows the city to more easily decide where the boxes can go and when they can be removed.

That’s easier said than done, though. In 1988 and 1993, the Supreme Court took up two cases involving publisher boxes and racks, ruling that any restrictions have to be narrowly written and applied equally to commercial and non-commercial publications. Lower courts, though, have split on how far cities can go in regulating the boxes, with some allowing officials more latitude than others.

A 30-day public comment period on the regulations closes on Saturday, after which DDOT can make changes and re-submit the regulations. The Council will eventually have final say on the regulations.

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