Yes, a free press counts even if it's an eyesore

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Dan Haley

Scoville Park is the town square of Oak Park. From the war memorial at its crest (that anything in Oak Park can fairly be described as having a crest is celebratory), to Wright's horse fountain. From the stand of tulips that announces spring, to the Sunday summer concerts that draw hundreds. And until recently, the ticky-tack plastic news boxes that had surpassed two dozen and carried jobs to be had, apartments to rent, as well as news for every taste, locale and special interest.

Now, by decree, more than half of those news boxes have been carted off by the village government and placed within the vast confines of the recently opened public works center on South Boulevard.

Was that amalgam of plastic and metal an eyesore at one of the village's most notable corners? Sure was. And by my count a growing eyesore. New boxes seemed to spawn from the others with regularity.

But here's something uglier than a seedy row of news boxes: the wholesale removal of news boxes by government bureaucrats who decided to tidy things up. Yes, the corner looks better but it feels worse.

Oak Park, of all places, should not be in the business of unilaterally squelching a free press. That, though, is what Village Manager Tom Barwin did a month back when he ordered some 25 boxes at Scoville Park, and also at Oak Park Avenue and South Boulevard, to be removed. Yes, I know the village's arguments. The boxes were ugly. Several of them seemed to have been abandoned. Some were collecting garbage. Many contained nothing but advertising rags. When I talked to the village manager, he assured me that "legitimate" news boxes were left in place. Explain that distinction to Chicago Free Press, the fine weekly targeted to gays and lesbians. Its box is now in the bowels of the public works garage.

Am I happy that Wednesday Journal is deemed legit? Not so long as it is the government making that choice.

Barwin, who has been quite surefooted in his first year in town, lamely called his action a conversation starter. A phone call to the local publisher is also a conversation starter. Actively exploring how other communities have dealt with the multiplying of news boxes starts a worthy discussion. Simply piling boxes into the back of a village truck is not a conversation starter, it is a flammable provocation. It is chilling. And it stalls the start of a solution.

As I said in an e-mail to a village staffer last week, I am wary of this newspaper, which so often urges neighbors to calm down and accept change, leading a heated charge against a village action. I am more wary, though, of not fighting back when this government body, any government, says it can decide what press the public can see. I don't give a fig for The Real Estate Book or the Employment Guide. The First Amendment I care about.

Barwin told me that all news boxes in Oak Park are in violation of a local ordinance requiring that they be registered with the village. He's right. Years ago the Journal filled out paperwork each year, as I recall, and there were stickers placed on our boxes. That's fine. But it is the village that stopped sending out that paperwork. It is the village that feels some need to regulate news boxes. So don't blame newspapers if the village couldn't be bothered to send the forms.

There are solutions to this issue. They start with a round table and honest discussion of the village's concerns and the worries of newspapers and their industry representatives. The discussion, though, will be harder initially due to the ill-advised action of the village manager.

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