To the Newsracks!
It was a cold, crisp, bright Saturday afternoon, and I was happy. Bill Clinton would suffer awhile longer. House Republicans had publicly proven themselves to be pompous closet tyrants who go to untalented hair stylists. And the people were demonstrating on Mission Street to stop the bombing of Iraq.
OK, so only a few hundred of "the people" were in the street, and many of them appeared to be escapees from an old Cheech and Chong movie. And yes, by the time the anti-bombing march really got rolling, Clinton had already pulled the plug on Desert Fox. But it was still good to see people exercise the right peaceably to assemble to petition the government, etc. and so on.
I'm not being ironic or sly here. I happen to believe Saddam Hussein will set off an anthrax or nerve-gas device in Tel Aviv or London or New York the instant he is able to, and so I think the U.S. government should do everything possible to ensure he never has his horrible instant of infamy. Even though I hold that opinion, however, I admire those few hundred people who have an entirely different point of view and took time out of their personal lives Saturday to march down Mission Street to express it. Unlike most commentators in the aftermath of Monica, I view conflict short of gunplay as a sign of political health and believe the nasty disputation over impeachment and attacking Iraq to be invigorating and educational.
In fact, I'm hoping a little of this enlightening nastiness bleeds over to the local political scene. It's much needed, because in the absence of any political counterweight, the supposedly liberal leadership of the city of San Francisco has embarked on an authoritarian course of action that ought to infuriate anyone who believes free expression is essential to self-governance.
On Monday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a contract that authorizes the replacement of all private newspaper racks in the city with a government-mandated set of centralized newsracks. (Technically, the board approved the deal on "first reading," and there will be another vote; but this one looks to be an absolutely done deal, folks.) These centralized newsracks, to be installed by a New York street-furniture firm, will each have six boxes from which newspapers can be distributed. No individual newsracks will be allowed. (At first, the plan covers only the northeast quadrant of the city, but it clearly is intended to extend citywide.)
By government fiat, then, anyone who wants to distribute a newspaper profitably on the streets of San Francisco will have to seek government approval. That approval can be withheld for the vaguest of "reasons." I predict there will be plenty of withheld approvals, because this newsrack program is motivated by Mayor Willie Brown's fear and hatred of an energetic press.
The government's new ability to restrict access to newsracks gives Mayor Brown -- and future mayors -- unparalleled leverage over the news media of a major American city. Of course, a newspaper may choose to print articles that criticize the mayor -- but that newspaper may soon find itself without the ability to distribute itself in San Francisco. Entering or staying in the newspaper business in San Francisco may well now depend on one's willingness not to offend the powers that be.
This centralized newsrack program violates the letter and the intent of the First Amendment, which was adopted specifically to protect speech that is critical of the government. Under cover of disingenuous claims about street clutter and safety, Mayor Brown and a tame majority of the Board of Supervisors have given the city government unconstitutional control over which newspapers you can read, and what those newspapers say.
It should never have come to this. For this law to have passed, a majority of San Francisco's supposedly freedom-loving, liberal-and-proud-of-it Board of Supervisors had to go along with an out-of-control mayor bent on making authoritarian attack on the press and the Constitution.
A list of eight supervisors who have supported Mayor Brown in his attack on press freedom is reproduced below. (Supervisor Mabel Teng was absent from Monday's vote. She has, however, helped move newsrack measures through committee, and so is included in this list, with an asterisk.) In general, I consider single-issue politics to be a shallow politics. But you really should clip or photocopy this list and keep it until the next election, because the supervisors on it have lamely assented to an unconstitutional attack on free expression, and really do need to be sent back to the private sector. San Francisco deserves better than to be governed by hacks who toe the party line -- especially when the line crosses out important freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
Correction and Addendum
My column last week incorrectly said that Muni General Manager Emilio Cruz went to Europe with other government employees as part of a 1997 tour related to the transit agency's new computer controls and streetcars. Mr. Cruz called this week to say he did not go on the tour. SF Weekly and I regret erroneously saying he did.