Vendors Lose Appeal : Appeals Court Reverses Licensing Case

by Brian Davis with research by Harold Dopman

On Monday February 3, the United States Federal Appeals Court reversed a lower court’s decision regarding the licensing of street newspapers. The suit was brought against the City of Cleveland on behalf of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (publisher of the Homeless Grapevine) and the Nation of Islam (publisher of the Final Call) by the American Civil Liberties Union to stop a policy involving the ticketing of the vendors of the two papers.

The City initiated a policy to license vendors of street newspapers in much the same way as hot dog vendors are licensed. The license costs $50 for a stationary license or $100 if the vendor wants to be mobile. This would effectively regulate the paper out of existence according to Harold Dopman, Managing Editor of the Grapevine.

The decision reversed a District Court decision, which found a need to protect the distribution of a political discussion on the streets of Cleveland. The District Court decision was based on the freedom of speech and the press. In the Appeal’s Court decision, the three judges did not mention the economic impact the fee will place on the homeless and low-income vendors of the Grapevine. Cleveland Law Director, Sharon Sobol Jordan, said that they were pleased with the victory, and was especially happy with the language that the judges used in the decision.

The City had argued that in much the same way that organizations pay for parade licenses this was a legitimate form of government intrusion. The City claimed that this was not a restriction on selling the paper, but an attempt for the City to regulate or at least have knowledge of those people who are selling items on the streets to identify those that are defrauding people. Jordan said that the City was concerned with fraud by unlicensed vendors

The ACLU has asked for a rehearing by all the judges in the Sixth Circuit arguing that this decision violates Murdock v. Pennsylvania a Supreme Court decision regarding the distribution of religious material by the Jehovah Witnesses. If the court does not grant the rehearing, the ACLU will be forced to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Grapevine managing editor, Dopman contends that this is just a continuing form of harassment by the City of Cleveland of homeless people. “This is a clear violation of our free speech, and another effort to get rid of this blight on the city known as homeless people.”

The City contends that they realize the impact a fee has on vendors, and are not as much concerned with the fee as they are over “protecting” the public. Jordan emphatically stated that the law department supports the civil rights and the first amendment, and she said, “I am pretty sure that the Mayor does too.”

City attorneys claim that lawsuit and the appeal did not cost the City much money, and they will defend the lawsuit in the Supreme Court if necessary.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published March 1997-April 1997 Issue 20