Airport surrenders in six-year legal fight over newspaper boxes

Staff WriterJuly 16, 2010 

The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority acknowledged defeat Thursday after spending six years and more than $500,000 in a First Amendment fight to defend its ban on newspaper coin vending boxes at the public airport.

The airport said it will install news racks - but not where newspaper publishers most want to have them, in the terminal concourses where travelers wait for their flights.

The airport plans to put one cluster of news racks in the baggage claim area and one in the ticketing lobby of each terminal.

The announcement came two days after the fifth in a series of court rulings that sided with The News & Observer and three other newspaper companies that sued the airport in 2004. An appellate court's refusal Tuesday to hear RDU's appeal was accompanied by a six-page opinion that scolded the airport for placing "administrative convenience" above the First Amendment rights of newspaper publishers and readers.

N&O not satisfied

The airport said the case was mostly about travelers who want newspapers early in the morning or late in the evening, when newsstands are closed. "No news racks will be installed within the secure corridors of the terminals, which is where all but two of the newsstands are located," the airport statement said.

N&O publisher Orage Quarles III said the newspaper won't be satisfied with the airport's terms. Air travelers are in a hurry to get through the security checkpoint when they arrive at RDU, he said, and they look for a newspaper only after they reach the secure terminal concourse.

"We want to be right next to the Redbox," Quarles said, referring to the movie DVD vending machines the airport has installed on the secure passenger concourses.

"We just want strategic locations, for the convenience of our customers. We never anticipated loading up the terminals with news racks. But there are times when papers aren't available."

Robb Teer of Durham, chairman of the airport authority board, blamed the newspapers for the long legal fight.

'No choice' for airport

"It is regrettable that the Airport Authority had to be involved in litigating this matter in the first place," Teer said in RDU's written statement, "but the insistence of the newspapers on being allowed to place news racks anywhere on the airport and in whatever numbers they wished left us no choice."

U.S. Judge Terrence W. Boyle issued the first ruling against RDU in 2008, and he ordered the airport authority to repay the newspapers for their legal expenses.

In March, when an appellate court upheld Boyle's ruling, the newspapers said they had spent more than $400,000 in the case and RDU said its legal bills had reached $503,000. The airport is owned by local governments in Wake and Durham counties, and its legal costs are covered by airport revenues.

RDU argued that travelers have enough opportunities to get papers at airport shops, but the newspapers said they did not want to be at the mercy of merchants' decisions on how and when they sell papers.

The federal courts rejected RDU's claims that news racks would undermine airport security and aesthetics, impede passenger flow through the terminals, and reduce airport income.

J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, ripped the airport's rationale Tuesday in his ruling defended the role of newspapers in American history and democracy.

Political speech limited

"It must be remembered that a news rack ban like the one in place primarily restricts political speech and that political speech, of course, is at the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect," Wilkinson wrote. "An informed citizenry is at the heart of this democracy, and narrowing the arteries of information in the manner sought by the Authority will only serve to impair our country's coronary health."

John A. Bussian of Raleigh, the newspapers' lead attorney, said the courts have said RDU must allow newspaper sales from coin racks on the passenger concourses, alongside other things offered there for sale.

"This press release shows the nature and the depth of the airport's belief that it is its prerogative alone to decide how news is going to be distributed at RDU," Bussian said. "And that's wrong."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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