Judge rules two free newspapers do not violate city’s littering ordinance

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 15, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; A rose by any other name is still a rose, and a newspaper, whether it’s called the Miss-Lou Guide or the Miss-Lou Magazine, is still a newspaper, at least according to a municipal judge.

On Wednesday afternoon, City Judge John M. Tipton ruled the city’s litter ordinance is overly vague in its definition of newspapers and that the publications in question are, in fact, newspapers and not trash.

At the urging of the Natchez Board of Aldermen, the Police Department cited both publications &045; the former of which is owned by Natchez Newspapers Inc., the publisher of The Natchez Democrat &045; Dec. 13 of last year for allegedly violating the newly revised litter ordinance.

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The debate over the status of the Miss-Lou Magazine and the Miss-Lou Guide, both free newspapers, began Oct. 8, when the board of aldermen passed a revision of its litter ordinance that contained slightly different criteria for one type of littering.

The old ordinance allowed the delivery of free newspapers with the stipulation that a recipient could have himself removed from the delivery list.

Interim Police Chief Mike Mullins explained the difference between the old and the new on the stand: &uot;The current one says that unless the owner requests it, it’s illegal.&uot;

The new ordinance also seemed to define a newspaper &045; as opposed to a handbill or other handout lacking news or editorials &045; as something that must be paid for or subscribed to.

&uot;My interpretation is that it would not be a newspaper unless it is subscribed to under the ordinance,&uot; Mullins said.

A month after the new ordinance went into effect, the board of aldermen instructed Mullins to cite the two publications.

In particular, Mullins said, Alderman David Massey told the interim chief that he had been plagued by unwanted copies of the Miss-Lou Magazine and the Miss-Lou Guide on his driveway.

But Massey is a Democrat subscriber, which disqualifies him from receiving the Miss-Lou Guide. That newspaper is only delivered to businesses and households that don’t subscribe to The Democrat.

Mullins said Massey also complained about flyers from Pizza Hut, but the purveyor of Italian pies was not cited for any violation.

When the citations were issued, no complainant was listed.

In fact, Mullins, who served as complainant in court, said no one had lodged a formal complaint about either publication with the police department.

&uot;I’ve run into people on the street that mentioned it, but I don’t have a documented complaint,&uot; he said.

Peter Rinaldi, publisher of the Miss-Lou Magazine, testified that his current list of businesses and households that have asked not to receive his publication has eight names on it &045; including Mullins and Massey.

Todd Carpenter, president of Natchez Newspapers Inc., said that in his four and a half years on the job, he has heard of only one complaint about the Miss-Lou Guide. The complaint, he said, stemmed from a newspaper that had been thrown on a farm road where no one lived.

Although there was no evidence introduced to back up the claim, defense attorneys Jack Lazarus, who represents the Miss-Lou Magazine, and Kent Hudson, who represents Natchez Newspapers Inc., argued the citations were a result not of an effort to keep the city’s streets clean, but of the board of aldermen’s dislike of Rinaldi’s negative editorials.

&uot;It’s not the mess &045; it’s the message,&uot; Lazarus said. &uot;It’s obvious that they are trying to squelch a dissenting voice.&uot;

Hudson alleged that his client was cited just to give the appearance of impartiality.

&uot;They didn’t like what Mr. Rinaldi said. To be subjective they also went after the Miss-Lou Guide,&uot; Hudson said.

Tipton obviously agreed with at least some part of Hudson and Lazarus’ arguments.

In finding in favor of the defendants, Tipton said, &uot;The definition of a newspaper as found in the ordinance is overly vague.&uot;

Carpenter said he was pleased with Tipton’s ruling and his attorney’s performance.

&uot;I think that we had a strong case, and Kent Hudson did a good job,&uot; he said.

Massey said that while he didn’t expect the city to appeal Tipton’s decision, he thought it was flawed.

&uot;It totally ignores the landowners’ rights,&uot; he said.

With such a precedent, Massey said, anyone with an opinion and advertising revenue can print up a rag and &uot;throw it in your yard.&uot;