Both sides are claiming victory in a battle over the recent removal of over 200 newspaper boxes throughout Jersey City. Some boxes that Mayor Steven Fulop ordered removed earlier this month have been returned to their owners, but not before one of the editors was led out of City Council chambers in handcuffs on June 13.
Other boxes are being returned, leading some of those who protested to declare victory.
“We the people… fought back and won regarding Jersey City Mayor Fulop’s action against the free press, where he had removed all free newspaper boxes from our sidewalks,” said Erik Anders Nilsson, a local activist. “The swift action from Jersey City Peace Movement members, Indypendent newspaper staff members, publishers of AM New York, publishers of El Especialito, and other free publications and other local activists forced the current mayor to reverse his assault on free speech and return all boxes.”
But the city said the victory may be short-lived if owners of these boxes do not comply with new rules that will regulate their location and condition.
“There will be an ordinance on the next agenda requiring them to register the boxes and maintain them graffiti free or they will get fined,” said city spokesperson Hannah Peterson.
The council is expected to introduce the ordinance at its June 27 meeting. Those opposed to the removal argued that the boxes should be returned first because the city lacked the authority to remove them in the first place.
Seen as First Amendment issue
Early in June, without notice and apparently without authorization from the City Council, Mayor Fulop ordered the city’s Department of Public Works to remove boxes in which free newspapers were distributed from locations throughout Jersey City.
Protesters gathered outside City Hall before the June 13 council meeting to raise awareness about the issue, noting that the free newspapers serve a diverse population in the city.
They said the removal of the boxes deprived readers of news, newspapers of revenues, and advertisers from reaching readers.
The protestors included several publishers as well as community activists who – bearing a copy of the U.S. Constitution – said this is a First Amendment issue.
During the council meeting, the protestors became vocal, criticizing Council President Lavarro and refusing to stop chanting. Lavarro ordered police to remove them from the council chambers. Tarleton was arrested and led from the chambers in handcuffs. He was detained briefly, charged with disturbing the peace, and released.
“When a thief steals the couch from your house, he doesn’t call you up and tell you to come pick it up.” — John Tarleton
What are the rules?
Several complained that Fulop’s actions denied them due process and pointed to regulations about these boxes in New York. There, boxes fall under the provisions of the New York Department of Transportation, which has rules about their location, upkeep, and possible fines.
“If we violate the rules, we get a notice and time to comply,” said John Tarleton, co-founder and editor of The Indypendent, a Brooklyn-based weekly with one box located in Jersey City. “If we don’t comply we face fines.”
His box was one of apparently 240 boxes removed from the city.
Nilsson, a community activist involved with the local peace movement as well as helping homeless in the Journal Square area, helps maintain the Indypendant’s box where it was located in front of the Five Corners Library on Summit and Newark Avenues. The paper distributes about 1,000 papers in Jersey City per month, but has a circulation in the New York region of about 45,000, Tarleton said.
“We have a liberal leaning and have seen our circulation rise from about 15,000 to 45,000 since Trump was elected president,” Tarleton said, and though Fulop is technically a Democrat, Tarleton said the act was Trump-like.
“Can you imagine the outcry if Donald Trump took all the newspapers off the street?” Tarleton said.
Nilsson said there was no warning.
“I was bringing bundles of papers. But when I got there, the box was gone – all the boxes were gone,” Nilsson said. He informed Tarleton about the missing box.
Mayor gives notice on Twitter
Tarleton then found out Fulop had made the announcement via Twitter.
“For Jersey City residents,” Fulop tweeted, “we continue to remove these from the streets as many are nonfunctioning, they clutter the sidewalks, and many just become trash cans. If we accidentally took one that has permits to be there please reach out to DPW.”
While Tarleton and others were told they could retrieve the boxes from the DPW, Tarleton and others want boxes returned to where they were removed.
“When a thief steals the couch from your house, he doesn’t call you up and tell you to come pick it up; he brings it back to your house,” Tarleton said, noting the box was well-maintained and graffiti-free.
Fulop promised to return the boxes if they are deemed safe, clean and appropriate for Jersey City. He said some have been returned and they are working on a permit process.
But the issue of “appropriateness” for the city may feed into the perception that the city is going to dictate content.
“We already have a permit,” said Nilsson, holding up a copy of the U.S. Constitution.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.