In the summer drama pitting The Contributor street newspaper and its ragged salespeople against the city of Brentwood, the citizens of this largely Republican Nashville suburb say they have been unfairly typecast as heartless snobs. They insist their police gave tickets to seven salespeople not to chase the unsightly homeless from the city’s sidewalks, but to head off inevitable accidents on their car-clogged streets.
Whether a judge believes that claim is the key question in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed this month against Brentwood by The Contributor and the ACLU of Tennessee.
Brentwood Police Chief Ricky Watson said his officers had no choice but to write the tickets because The Contributor salespeople were walking out into traffic to collect dollars from motorists for their newspapers.
“We warned them numerous times prior to issuing any citation,” Watson said. “They refused to comply, so they were cited. It’s not only their safety. It’s the safety of the public in general. These cars were stopping unexpectedly at intersections. It’s just a safety concern. The citizens of Brentwood are a very generous people. But the first time somebody gets hurt, we’re going to be accused of failing to act. We’re kind of in a no-win situation here.”
The controversy started an argument between newspaper columnists in Nashville and its suburb to the south. The Tennessean’s Gail Kerr accused Brentwood of running The Contributor’s salespeople out of town because they are homeless.
“Poverty does make people uncomfortable, doesn’t it?” Kerr asked in a recent column.
That brought a scathing rebuke from Susan Leathers, editor of the online Brentwood Home Page newspaper.
“[A] Girl Scout selling cookies would be cited as quickly as a Contributor salesperson if local authorities deemed the action dangerous,” she wrote, then turned to “something that makes my blood boil.”
“It’s the stereotype that paints Brentwood as a snobby, prejudiced place that refuses to let its streets paved with gold be tainted by those considered less desirable than the people who live here.”
An “amazing number of volunteers” in Brentwood help the homeless, she added.
“My church, as well as many others in Brentwood, welcome Room in the Inn ‘residents’ on an ongoing basis. Habitat for Humanity in Williamson County — yes, there is a huge need for affordable homes here — knows that many of its homes were constructed with the generosity of and volunteer labor provided by Brentwood churches, businesses and residents, starting with our high school Habitat High clubs.”
In the lawsuit, Brentwood officials already have conceded the city’s ordinance won’t stand up in court. Part of Brentwood’s original municipal code, it bans the sale of any merchandise from sidewalks, streets or public rights-of-way. The city might persuade a judge to allow an infringement on The Contributor’s free-press rights, but only if Brentwood is advancing a legitimate interest in doing so, i.e., the safety of its streets. The prohibition in the ordinance obviously is too broad.
So last week, the Brentwood City Commission began amending the ordinance to permit newspaper sales on sidewalks but not on streets. The amended ordinance passed on first reading and should become the new law by the end of this month.
City Attorney Roger Horner, who had been negotiating with the ACLU, said he thought the changes would appease The Contributor and head off the lawsuit.
“We assumed at that time that the ACLU was satisfied with the measures we were taking, and they didn’t wish to pursue the matter any further,” Horner told the City Commission. “We invited their input. Instead of providing that input, they filed their lawsuit in federal court.”
With the amendments to the ordinance, Horner said he’s confident the city will win the lawsuit. “Frankly, we’re a bit puzzled as to what the lawsuit seeks to accomplish,” he said.
But Tricia Herzfeld, ACLU-Tennessee legal director, said The Contributor’s salespeople need to be able to step off curbs and onto the streets to hand their newspapers to motorists.
“It shuts down The Contributor completely” to limit sales to sidewalks, she said. “There’s not any pedestrian traffic in Brentwood, right?”
Tom Wills, one of The Contributor’s founders, said salespeople are trained to make transactions safely. One vendor once refused sell a newspaper to none other than Mayor Karl Dean until he pulled over his car to the side of the street, Wills said.
“It’s not a dangerous activity. We have standards,” Wills said. “Our own vendors are not supposed to be in the street. Our position is that vendors are allowed to sell to cars that are stopped. We do not want vendors flagging down cars that are driving down the road to make sales.”
The Contributor is wildly successful. Since starting in 2007, according to Wills, sales have grown from 5,000 copies in the first year to 500,000 last year. That has made it the largest-circulation street newspaper in the country. There are a couple dozen publications in the genre — the Oregon Vagabond, the Spare Change News in Cambridge, Mass., Chicago’s StreetWise, the Denver Voice, just to name a few. All address issues of poverty and homelessness and are distributed by poor or homeless vendors.
Nashville’s goes for $1, and the 400 salespeople pocket 75 cents from each sale. One-third of those who were homeless when they started selling these newspapers now are off the streets, Wills said.
The Contributor is growing so fast that salespeople have been forced to branch out to Nashville’s suburbs. In Franklin, Wills said, they have encountered trouble from police, but no tickets have been issued yet. He said he hopes the lawsuit against Brentwood will set the parameters for what his salespeople can and cannot do.
In Nashville, police at first insisted they had to obtain permits to sell the paper. That was even though newspapers are exempt from the Metro ordinance regarding the sale of merchandise on the street. So The Contributor printed signs with the ordinance’s citation number and gave them to their salespeople
to educate police. The police don’t bother them anymore.
“It’s fine and dandy that Davidson County is constitutionally friendly with us,” Wills said. “But when the other communities run our vendors off repeatedly, whether that be in Brentwood or Franklin or other communities outside of Nashville, it does really hurt the bottom line of our vendors. Our vendors are out there trying to create a small business. They go into these communities and they are told, ‘No you can’t do this, no you can’t do that.’ At some point we have to be able to say, ‘No, we do have the right to do this.’
“It’s not just principle,” Wills continued. “It’s a practical concern for us. We’re not in this to start a class war. We had to take action to give our vendors hope and make sure they understand that we’ve got their back, and to basically settle this issue once and for all.”