On Wednesday, The Contributor and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in U.S. District Court in Nashville over the city of Brentwood citing and fining eight of the newspaper’s street vendors. The newspaper is suing the city claiming that their effort to clear newspaper vendors off its streets deprives them of free speech and their first amendment rights. Not only did the citations deny vendors of their simple rights, but also discouraged other vendors from selling in the wealthy Brentwood suburb, the suit states. This lawsuit remains the first of its kind in the US concerning a street newspaper. David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Nashville shared with the Tennessean, “It’s a time-honored First Amendment tradition that protects the right of people to lease, let and distribute newspapers and other materials…So a flat ban on such expressive activity would present serious First Amendment issues.”
On the contrary, Brentwood officials claim that Hart and Harrington, two vendors that were cited, were in violation of a “city ordinance prohibiting the sale of goods on any ‘public street, alley, sidewalk.'” The Contributor counters that the ordinance and fines are a free speech issue, citing “deprivation of First Amendment rights.” ACLU of Tennessee legal director Tricia Herzfeld shared, “If the vendors were not who they are selling this paper, this wouldn’t be nearly as big of a deal.” The city of Brentwood recently issued a statement saying that the main concern behind the ordinance is safety for their residents. The release stated, “Walking into a public street to sell newspapers or anything else creates a safety risk…It is not the City’s intention to prohibit the sale of newspapers, nor does the City wish to discriminate against anyone, including persons who happen to be homeless.” In addition, the statement also claims that citations were issued to the vendors only after they had ignored warnings to discontinue their distribution. The paper began to be published in 2007, and circulated only 800 copies within its first year. Since then, its circulation and vendor network has become the highest-circulating street newspaper of its kind in North America, circulating more than 100,000 papers per month. In 2010, The Contributor became an independent non- profit organization. The Contributor is more than a “Homeless” weekly newspaper published in Nashville. Tasha French, founder and executive director of the newspaper, points out that the publication exists to bridge to gap between the homeless and the community, and Brentwood’s ordinance is standing in the way.
Each newspaper is sold on public property by homeless and formerly homeless vendors. These vendors purchase each newspaper for .25 cents and resell them for $1.00, keeping the .75 difference as their profit. The paper’s content within articles focuses on issues surrounding homelessness and poverty and is written by local journalists as well as people experiencing homelessness or working within the homeless community. Although the thought of homeless men and women roaming suburban streets may scare some residents, this established organization makes a difference in a large number of vendors lives. Vendors of the newspaper have a 30% rate of finding housing utilizing income from their paper sales alone. The city of Brentwood will be amending their ordinance so that vendors will be allowed to sell newspapers on the sidewalks but not the street. The amendment is set to go into effect in July (source). For more information on The Contributor, visit their website here.