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Local ban on delivery of free newspapers struck down

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In mid May, the Georgia Supreme Court in Atlanta ruled 6-1 that a Sylvania ordinance prohibiting distribution of free printed…

GEORGIA — In mid May, the Georgia Supreme Court in Atlanta ruled 6-1 that a Sylvania ordinance prohibiting distribution of free printed material to yards, driveways or porches violates freedom of speech and press under the U.S. and Georgia Constitutions.

Presiding Justice Norman Fletcher, writing for the majority, found that the ordinance was not narrowly tailored to serve the city’s desire to “protect its aesthetic beauty and prevent litter.” The majority held that there are other ways to prevent litter that would not infringe on free speech or the press, and that the ordinance does not leave open an adequate alternative means of communication, because alternatives such as delivery by mail are prohibitively expensive.

The majority also found that the Georgia Constitution’s protection of speech, which is broader than that of the federal constitution, requires the city to “narrowly draw its regulations to suppress no more speech than necessary to achieve the city’s goals.”

Justice P. Harris Hines concurred in the judgment, but did not join in the portion of Fletcher’s opinion examining the ordinance under the Georgia Constitution.

Justice George H. Carley dissented, arguing that the Supreme Court should not address the state constitutional issue because the trial court did not reach it. Carley also argued that the ordinance did not violate the First Amendment because the newspaper could reach subscribers in other ways.

The Penny-Saver is a tabloid-sized newspaper that contains commercial, political, and classified advertisements and provides notices about community events and news. Statesboro Publishing Company delivers the Penny-Saver without charge to Sylvania city residents by throwing the paper in yards and driveways.

The city enacted an ordinance in 1992 that prohibits distribution of free printed material in yards, driveways, or porches. The ordinance makes an exception for mail and paid materials such as newspapers.

After the publisher threatened to sue if the city enforced the ordinance against the Penny-Saver, the city filed a declaratory judgment action. Finding that the shopper was noncommercial speech, the superior court in Chatham upheld the ordinance as a reasonable regulation on the time, place, and manner of expression. The court concluded that the ordinance was narrowly tailored to eliminate unsolicited publications and provided adequate alternative means of distribution. The publisher appealed. (Statesboro Publishing Co., Inc. v. City of Sylvania)