ST. PETERSBURG — Calling a new ban on street solicitation a violation of its constitutional right to free speech, the Times Publishing Co., the corporate parent of the St. Petersburg Times, filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the city of St. Petersburg.
"The right of access to public streets and sidewalks to distribute the news is essential to the exercise of the press' First Amendment freedoms," the suit states. "The ordinance prevents the Times from distributing its newspapers in traditional public (areas), thereby violating its freedom of the press."
By a unanimous vote Thursday, the City Council approved banning all street solicitation, making no distinction between panhandling, roadside fundraising and street vending. The surge in panhandlers has troubled neighborhood leaders, and this ban was considered one way to put tighter restrictions on begging.
The ban prohibits any transaction between pedestrians and motorists on major city streets. That means it also would restrict activities such as fundraising by the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the selling of newspapers by street vendors.
Council members said the inclusion of those activities is unfortunate, but necessary. They were following the advice of City Attorney John Wolfe, who said making exceptions would make the ban vulnerable to a legal challenge.
By including all transactions made in streets, Wolfe made the case that the new ordinance is aimed at improving public safety, not curbing panhandling.
"If you don't think this will improve public safety, don't vote for it," Wolfe told the council last week.
But since the newspaper started its vending program in 1995, Times legal counsel George Rahdert said, there has been only one accident involving a vendor for the paper.
"The ordinance is a content-based restriction on speech that targets panhandlers and the homeless," the suit states. "In an attempt to appear content-neutral, the ordinance bans all 'street vending,' not for traffic safety but as a facade to disguise its content-based intentions."
Other forms of solicitation, such as car washes and roadside political campaigning, are still allowed. That last exemption, the suit alleges, favors the council and Mayor Bill Foster — all of whom supported the ban.
The paper sells about 7,000 newspapers each Sunday, providing part-time work for individuals who can't find jobs elsewhere, Rahdert said. The ban would rob the vendors of income while threatening them with arrest and prosecution for disseminating news to the public, a constitutional right, the suit states.
Enforcement of the ban is set for Sunday, but Judge Richard A. Lazzara on Thursday will consider a motion to impose a restraining order on the city that would stop enforcement until the legal challenge is resolved.
City officials tried to discourage the newspaper from suing.
"Spend your time and money on innovative methods to stay competitive in an ever-changing media (sic) and not on attorneys suing your city and forcing us to spend ever-diminishing tax dollars defending what your community wants," council member Jeff Danner wrote. He also encouraged firefighters to ramp up efforts to raise money for the MDA to take the place of the roadside fundraising. Officials at the nonprofit have also said they will consider legal action.
Foster said he was confident the city would defend the ordinance successfully. "We're ready," he said Friday.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.