Why Wellesley is stuck with those ugly plastic ‘newsboxes’

As publishers, we’re all for First Amendment protections, including freedom of the press. But when it comes to those trashy plastic “newsboxes” on the westbound Washington Street sidewalk in Wellesley Hills, there’s got to be a legal way to get rid of them, right?

news boxes in front of jejes

We took notice of the four throwback containers when interviewing the owners of Jejes Coffeehouse & Roastery (259 Washington St.) and Coconut Thai (257 Washington St.) earlier this year about their businesses. Rather than displaying newspapers or magazines, these boxes were for real estate pamphlets, and currently sit empty except for occasional trash that fills them. At least a couple of the publishers whose names or websites adorned the boxes now appear to be out of business, and we haven’t observed any publications in the boxes during periodic check-ins dated more recent than last September.

The town has made many moves during and after the pandemic to help support existing businesses and encourage new ones, so we figured it might be nice for the town to help these new business owners, too. Both have outdoor seating, and removing these unsightly plastic boxes would be a small, but nice upgrade to the scene. Owners of both businesses say they’d love to see the boxes disappear.

Earlier this year we reached out to Amy Frigulietti, Wellesley’s assistant executive director until last week, to call the boxes to her attention and suggest that it would be great to see them go, especially if no publishers are actually using them. (We aren’t the first to file a sort of complaint about such boxes.)

But removing newsboxes isn’t so easy as just… removing them.

How to remove news boxes

We have seen other news boxes vanish over the years, including a collection near the former Peet’s in Wellesley Square. There used to be boxes at the Wellesley Hills train station, too, but presumably, the property owner cleaned up the space once the publications that had filled these boxes went out of fashion, or the publishers themselves undertook the removal. (An elected official told us there had been complaints about such boxes being an eyesore.)

Indeed, the publisher of  Improper Bostonian magazine, when it folded in 2019, removed its boxes from Wellesley, including one that had been located alongside the remaining boxes we’ve called to the town’s attention. I got a hard “No” from Mrs. Swellesley on possibly making one of these part of our interior decor.

improper bostonian

Over the years, the courts have ruled in favor of publishers seeking to distribute their offerings via boxes. For example, the Raleigh-Durham International Airport in 2011 lost its bid to exclude newsboxes so that print publications such as USA Today could only be sold only in terminal shops. Scholarly journals have reviewed the subject of “The newsbox and the First Amendment.”

Wellesley has limited mentions of newsboxes in its bylaws (we did find “Printed Matter Vending Machines in Public Ways and Places” under Police Regulations, but there’s no explicit mention of a removal process).

As for the current plastic news boxes in Wellesley, which over the past month or so have mysteriously spread out along the block, Frigulietti sought the advice of town counsel and was told:

“There is a way to remove the disused boxes, but because of the sensitivity of the First Amendment concerns at stake, it would need to be done by bylaw after a careful deliberative process.

“As you know, the right to place newsracks on public sidewalks is protected as a form of ‘speech’ under the First Amendment. This protection applies equally to commercial publications and non-commercial publications such as newspapers, as preference for one over the other would amount to a content-based regulation of speech in violation of the First Amendment.

“This does not mean that there is nothing that can be done about abandoned newsracks without violating the First Amendment. The First Amendment does not prevent the Town from creating regulations that are content-neutral and narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest. Under these circumstances, content-neutral regulations on newsracks based on public safety and aesthetics have been upheld by courts.”

If Wellesley were to take such action, it would not be a quick process and would require a very careful approach.

“It is important that the bylaw is specific enough that it does not leave discretion in the hands of public officials that may create the possibility for enforcement based on the publications’ content. Moreover, any bylaw must be in keeping with other efforts to regulate public safety and aesthetics in Town, such as the sign bylaw,” town counsel wrote.

The lawyer cited a Houston ordinance upheld and affirmed in court as “a good model for requiring that newsracks be kept in good repair or face removal. The ordinance required publications to apply for a permit to place a newsrack, which would have to be renewed every three years.” [Lauder, Inc. v. City of Houston, Texas, 751 F. Supp. 2d 920 (S.D. Tex. 2010), aff’d sub nom. Lauder, Inc. v. City of Houston, Tex., 670 F.3d 664 (5th Cir. 2012).] The City Council’s Quality of Life Committee held more than a dozen meetings on the proposed regulations before they got the go-ahead.

We asked if the Wellesley boxes could be removed as abandoned property. Maybe they could be recycled by some creative sorts as Little Free Libraries.

“Given the legal opinion we received I do not think we would be able to remove these boxes as abandoned property. I will look into it though…” Frigulietti replied.

Sounds like a good ice breaker for us to use if the town hires a successor.

news boxes

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