The image of a newsvendor shouting, “Extra, Extra, read all about it!” is an icon of American culture, symbolizing the freedom of the press and the people it enlightens.
Even to this day, these vendors can still be found on street corners, peddling democracy.
But in St. Petersburg, it’s not the Internet or collective apathy bringing this prized tradition to an end – it’s the City Council.
Last week, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to ban all street solicitation in hopes of curbing begging by homeless individuals and improving traffic safety.
This ban is likely to have undesired consequences that are apparently unforeseen by the council.
“If you don’t think this will improve public safety, don’t vote for it,” said St. Petersburg city attorney John Wolfe to the council last week.
The vote to approve the ban was unanimous, despite the fact that there has been only one accident involving a newspaper vendor for the paper since 1995, said St. Petersburg Times legal counsel George Rahdert, in Wednesday’s paper.
It’s unlikely that all homeless panhandlers will change their lives and suddenly become productive members of society because they can no longer beg on main roads.
They may take their trade to residential neighborhoods or other less desirable areas. Some who find themselves homeless and begging because of addictions may take to criminal activities to supplement their lost income.
Unfortunately, the ban also outlaws a source of income for others besides the homeless.
Many are able to earn much-needed cash by selling newspapers on Sundays or standing roadside to sell water and sodas – sometimes bringing their children and hand-made signs with them as they try to make an honest living in a recession.
Most importantly, the ban will end the prized practice of newspaper sales in a traditional public setting.
“The right of access to public streets and sidewalks to distribute the news is essential to the exercise of the press’ First Amendment freedoms,” stated a lawsuit filed by the Times against the city.
The lawsuit – which is delaying the ban’s enforcement – claims that the ban is an attack on the constitutional right to free speech. While the Times has a financial incentive to fight the ban, people should not disregard the lawsuit based on that fact.
It seems the unsightly appearance of the downtrodden is too much to bear for the council, since their concern for safety did not extend to roadside political campaigners or carwashes, which are exempt from the rule.
Those who solicit on roadsides are often incapable of affording an attorney, given the limited income that brings them there. It’s a defenseless group that’s easy to target.
The Times’ lawsuit is right in its aim to protect the less fortunate, as well as to save a prized tradition.