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Atlanta airport's newsrack plan rejected

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    NMU         ELEVENTH CIRCUIT         Newsgathering         Jan 15, 2002    

Atlanta airport’s newsrack plan rejected

  • The U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta deemed Hartsfield International Airport’s newsrack plan unconstitutional and a violation of First Amendment rights.

A federal appeals court recently upheld a judge’s order preventing Atlanta’s largest airport from enforcing its four-year-old plan to control racks where newspapers are sold.

The Hartsfield International Airport news racks plan imposes a $20 fee on publishers selling newspapers from designated, city-owned news racks advertising Coca-Cola products.

“The Department’s plan limits the kind of speech it will tolerate on airport news racks,” read the decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.).

On Jan. 4, the panel affirmed a district court judge’s decision that the plan is unconstitutional because it requires publishers to pay a fee that exceeds the actual cost of maintaining the news racks; it requires publishers to associate their publications with Coca-Cola; and it gives discretion to airport personnel to allow certain publishers access to city-owned news racks while canceling other publishers’ news racks licenses.

“The First Amendment affords the press the right not just to speak but to effectively distribute,” said Peter Canfield, lawyer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of the newspapers suing the airport for violating its First Amendment rights. USA Today and The New York Times also joined the lawsuit.

The plan went into effect following renovations made to the airport for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Airport authority said the plan was based on safety, aesthetics and passenger convenience. The authority, in an attempt to foster a relationship with Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola, placed advertisements for the company’s soft drinks on the racks.

Canfield said that while there are situations when airports have a right to impose particular restrictions, the First Amendment takes precedence in this case.

“If you allow the government to establish areas of restrictions on First Amendment rights,” Canfield said, “you give them more opportunities to create censorship and insidious activity.”

(Atlanta Journal and Constitution v. City of Atlanta Department of Aviation; Media counsel: Peter Canfield, Dow, Lohnes and Albertson, Atlanta) KG

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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