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May 13, 2009

The green piles

The C-J claims a proposed anti-litter ordinance violates their right to blanket the city with unwanted ads

Patrick Carrico’s frustration was a weekly ritual: Every Saturday, a delivery carrier for The Courier-Journal would toss a green plastic bag filled with advertisements onto his driveway.

Despite making several requests to halt the unwelcome deliveries — and the fact that he doesn’t even subscribe to the actual newspaper — the marketing blitz continued in his front yard.

“I don’t want to read the articles in the paper, and I also don’t want the advertisements because that’s even more worthless,” says Carrico, president of the Bon Air Neighborhood Association. “There are ways for me to stop some things from coming to my mailbox, but these fliers were just tossed indiscriminately into my driveway.”

For several months Carrico badgered the C-J’s circulation department, he says, and eventually the ad deliveries stopped at his house. But the little green bags still were ubiquitous throughout his southeastern Louisville neighborhood: While he would begrudgingly pick up and throw away the trash, some neighbors were not so diligent.

The green plastic bags were piling up in yards, clogging sewer drains and littering the street, prompting the Metro Council to propose an anti-litter ordinance aimed at regulating unsolicited written materials. The pending legislation would require anyone distributing such materials to place them in a mailbox, on the front porch, securely attached to the door, or between the front and storm doors.

Invoking the First Amendment, however, a lawyer for the newspaper claims the anti-litter ordinance would violate the publication’s constitutional rights to distribute information (even if that information consists of advertisements dropped in driveways). If the ordinance passes, he says the paper will sue the city.

“The city can’t just tell people we’re not going to allow you to put out a pamphlet or newspaper or [put a] poster up to distribute information,” attorney Jon Fleischaker tells LEO Weekly. “They’re trying to micromanage. It’s law for a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s just not that big of a deal.”

Because the law applies exclusively to “written materials,” he says it violates the paper’s constitutional rights and raises dangerous restrictions on other forms of protected speech for political candidates, community activists and neighborhood organizations.

In addition, Fleischaker suggests the ordinance would be way too costly for The Courier-Journal to abide by, not to mention it would take too much time to deliver the materials as required.

If residents are frustrated, Fleischaker says they should simply call the newspaper’s circulation department and ask to be added to the “do not deliver” list.

But by all accounts, that doesn’t always seem to work — at least not right away.

Last year while campaigning door-to-door, Councilman Brent Ackerson, D-26, says he heard countless constituents grumble about the weekly deliveries. Since taking office, he says complaints have continued pouring in, and that the issue has been a hot topic at every neighborhood meeting he’s attended, generating more outcry than the lingering ice storm debris.

As a result, the freshman councilman drafted the anti-litter ordinance to address how the materials were being haphazardly delivered. The bill has nothing to do with limiting distribution or putting anyone out of business, he says, and if the paper pursues legal action against the city as threatened, the council will not yield.

“If that’s the route they’re implying, I say that’s fine,” Ackerson says. “We’re not going to back down from doing the right thing because we’re afraid of a lawsuit.”

LEO Weekly contacted Larry James, the paper’s distribution and operations manager, but he would not comment. In a brief C-J article about the issue, however, James said the newspaper instructs its carriers to deliver the green bags as close to a front door as possible.

But given that residents continue to complain, city lawmakers and are not satisfied.

“The Courier-Journal has had long enough to do the right thing. Their delivery people are driving down the road and just chucking it out the window,” Ackerson says. “It doesn’t take a mental giant to say, ‘I shouldn’t be throwing this stuff out the way I do.’”

With eight co-sponsors and bipartisan support, the ordinance appears to be on a fast track to pass. Though she supports the bill, Councilwoman Madonna Flood, D-24, delayed a vote on the ordinance last week to allow time for a public hearing.

“We want to extend an invitation to everyone, including neighborhood groups, to come and speak on this ordinance,” says Flood. The meeting is scheduled for May 19 at 4 p.m., and the council has invited representatives from the newspaper to attend.