Monday, January 28, 2008

Stopping the Gazette, the Examiner, ... and Neighborhood Association Newsletters

The General Assembly is taking up a bill designed to regulate the distribution of regional free unsolicited newspapers. Perhaps unintentionally, it would also likely affect small community association newsletters and other neighborhood publications, as well.

People in my Forest Estates neighborhood have recently been talking a lot about free newspapers like the Gazette and the Examiner that we find left on our lawns regularly, whether we want them or not. Many people take the paper in and read it. Others have no interest in reading it but — being responsible citizens and good neighbors — take it in anyway and dispose of it properly. And far, far too many people let the newspaper sit on their property for days and weeks at a time, allowing it to become litter.

Several of my neighbors have told me that despite requests to one of these newspapers to stop delivery, the paper keeps getting delivered. This is a problem on many levels. It’s a problem for people who keep receiving something they don’t want and have asked not to get. It’s a problem for people who don’t want to live in a neighborhood strewn with litter. It's a problem when that litter degrades the environment. It’s a problem when vast amounts of paper are being wasted.

So here comes Del. Tanya Shewell (R – Carroll County) to the rescue. Her bill, House Bill 357, would regulate distribution of unsolicited newspapers, circulars, etc, like the Examiner and Gazette. The Shewell bill covers any "circular, newspaper, magazine, paper, or booklet that is published at regular intervals and distributed to the public" that is "delivered to a residential address in the state without the prior consent of the resident."

That definition would seem to include community association newsletters, as well as a number of other small-time neighborhood publications.

The unsolicited publications must tell people how they can have further deliveries stopped. Continued delivery would then constitute an “unfair or deceptive trade practice” and be punishable by a fine.

I expect some significant First Amendment issues to be raised in connection with this bill. The targeted newspapers are often engaged in political speech, which receives the highest level of protection under First Amendment jurisprudence. Unlike unsolicited telephone calls (which directly intrude into the home and can be regulated), a newspaper left on the front yard is minimally intrusive. (Those who don't care if it sits on their yards for weeks at a time apparently don’t feel at all intruded upon.) So I expect some interesting constitutional issues to be debated in Annapolis in the coming weeks.

I expect a groundswell of support for the bill from annoyed newspaper recipients and environmental activists. But if the large newspapers can keep the bill from being amended to exclude the neighborhood groups, they may form a coalition that could keep our free newspapers coming for a long time to come.