March 1996

HEADLINE: Zoning:1, First Amendment:0; oppressive zoning laws in Miami, FL, suburb of Cora Gables; The Playboy ForumColumn

BYLINE: Bovard, James

How The Design Police Killed Free Press

Coral Gables, a Miami suburb and the self-proclaimed City Beautiful, decreed in 1990 exactly which type of news racks the city will tolerate on its corners and sidewalks.

"News racks shall have gloss brown pedestals, gloss beige sides and door and gloss brown coin box, coated per standard Sho-Rack specifications." The city zoning wizards further decreed: "The height of the cabinet top of all news racks shall be 39 inches above the finished grade level." The name of the newspaper in the box was permitted to be painted on the box in letters that were not larger than 1.75 inches. The ordinance also went into excruciating detail about where each news rack could be placed on the city's sidewalks. The ordinance mandated: "The Public Works Department shall prepare a scale drawing or aerial photograph of each news rack location showing the position and name of each news rack at that location."

Furthermore, the city ordinance proclaimed that one of its purposes was to "maintain and preserve freedom of the press."

In 1991, Exito, a new upscale Spanish-language newspaper, placed a handful of news racks in Coral Gables. Exito was a tabloid paper, and thus its boxes were shaped a little differently from those used by other newspapers. Worst of all, Exito's vending boxes were bright purple.

The city promptly confiscated six news racks. (The town, with a population of 40,000, has its own news rack project manager.) In response, Exito sued, and federal judge Federico Moreno clobbered the city. The judge noted that the earth-tone colors gave the impression that the news racks contained bland publications and that "a uniform color essentially renders the news racks invisible, which is especially detrimental to new market entries such as Exito." The judge ruled that it was hypocritical for the city to demand uniformity among private news racks when the city's own trash barrels were multicolored and had much larger lettering than that permitted on news racks,

Coral Gables, unhappy with limits on its power, took Moreno's decision to a higher court. The appeals court upheld the zoning code, proclaiming that "reduction in visibility of news racks is the valid aesthetic interest to be served."

Exito appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Coral Gables' brief to the Court proclaimed: "The First Amendment's free speech guarantee protects the expression of ideas, not the color of news racks." The Supreme Court agreed.

Within a week of the high court's rejection, 17 city governments contacted Corot Gables to get information on how to crack down on news racks. The Coral Gables news rack regulations epitomize how bureaucrats have become czars of everyday life. The Supreme Court noted in 1878: "Liberty of circulating is as essential to freedom of the press as liberty of publishing; indeed, without the circulation, the publication would be of little value." Nowadays, apparently, all that is necessary to stifle the press is a bureaucrat who cites hysterical fears of visual blight.