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Atlanta airport may charge fee for newspaper racks

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Atlanta airport may charge fee for newspaper racks

  • A 1996 airport newspaper rack ordinance does not violate newspapers rights by charging a fee, but airport officials cannot control rack advertising or have full discretion in choosing which newspapers can lease the racks.

March 11, 2003 — The city of Atlanta did not violate the First Amendment rights of news organizations when it began requiring newspapers to lease city-owned newspaper racks for distribution in Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, a federal appeals court in Atlanta (11th Cir.) ruled Feb. 28. However, a provision that would give the city discretion to choose which newspapers could lease the racks would violate newspapers’ free-speech rights, as would a provision controlling advertising on the racks.

The full appeals court overturned a finding by a three-judge panel of the same court in January 2002, which ruled that a monthly fee of $20 was illegal because it was more than the administrative costs of maintaining the news racks.

“We’ve never contended that we can’t be charged the same fee as anyone else,” said Peter Canfield, attorney for the Journal-Constitution and the New York Times. “The problem with the city’s fee from our perspective was that it was singling out news racks and newspapers for some sort of special fee. That was what was objectionable.”

The court found that the airport’s plan to control advertising on the racks violated the First Amendment because “it discriminated between speech based upon viewpoint and content.” The court said that the airport needed to establish “standards for exercise of discretion” regarding when it could cancel distribution licenses.

In 1996, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sued the city of Atlanta, which owns the airport, when, as part of its preparation for the Olympics, the city instituted a plan to lease racks to the newspapers. The suit was joined by USA Today and The New York Times.

A federal district court judge in Atlanta issued a temporary injunction against the airport’s leasing plan. The injunction became permanent in July 2000. The February appeals court’s decision vacated the injunction.

The fee provision wasn’t at the root of why the Journal-Constitution filed the original case.

“It was all the other provisions in the news rack plan — forced advertising, limitation on the number of racks, how they would be allocated and general discretion,” Canfield said. “However, when the city said in response it could charge whatever they wanted, we certainly objected to that.”

In the end, the court said a fee was allowable under the law.

“All vendors remit to the Airport a fee for the space they lease or a portion of profits from the goods they sell, or a combination of the two. None of these fees imposed on other vendors is limited to recovery of the Airport’s administrative cost,” the appeals court wrote in its decision.

“We’re pleased that the court left the principle portions of the injunction in place,” said Peter Canfield, attorney for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times. “The court made it clear that the airport can’t charge whatever it wants, which is what the city had been contending. We’re obviously not pleased that the court held that they can charge more than the district court had previously held.”

(Atlanta Journal and Constitution v. City of Atlanta Department of Aviation; Media attorneys: Peter Canfield, Dow, Lohnes and Albertson, Atlanta; Jim Rawls, Powell Goldstein, Atlanta) JL

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