Judging A Book Ban By Its Cover

August 1, 2003

August 2003

Judging A Book Ban By Its Cover

By John E. Kramer

Jay Leno summed up IJ’s latest legal victory during his Tonight Show monologue:

“Listen to this. A federal judge has ruled that the City of New Orleans cannot ban sidewalk book sales because it violates the First Amendment. Here’s what I don’t understand. Why did New Orleans decide to ban book sales? You ever been to New Orleans? People are drinking on the sidewalk. They’re taking their tops off on the sidewalks. They’re urinating on the sidewalks. We just don’t want people reading on the sidewalk.”

For a year and a half, officials from the City of New Orleans told Josh Wexler and Anne Jordan Blanton that they could not sell books on the street. Creating a bureaucratic Catch-22, City officials repeatedly told Josh and Jordan their dream of opening a bookstand in the city could not happen without a permit—and that such permits did not exist. (The City does allow the sale of razorblades and other items on the street, but not books.) The City Code made vending without a license a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to five months in jail.

IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner litigated the case and secured one of IJ’s fastest-ever legal victories—a little more than three months from filing to victory. She said, “Instead of being happy to see a new business starting in their city, New Orleans’ bureaucrats thought their job was to prevent people from opening honest businesses. Cities nationwide constantly try to stop people from starting entrepreneurial businesses. This decision reminds them that their regulations must follow the Constitution.”

U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood R. Duval, Jr., ruled that the City must draft ordinances “that avoid trampling on First Amendment freedoms. . . . An ordinance, like the one the City of New Orleans adopted, that operates as a blanket ban on book selling or under the City’s interpretation, prohibits book selling from a small easily moveable table is an unreasonable restriction that does not provide ample alternative channels of communication.” The judge issued a permanent injunction clearing the way for Josh Wexler and Anne Jordan Blanton to pursue their dream of selling books on the street as a means to someday open up their own bookstore.

Increasingly, government tries to regulate occupations that involve speech. This legal victory adds yet another citation that the Institute for Justice will use in defending the rights of individuals to speak freely and earn an honest living by doing so.

Chip Mellor is the Institute’s president and general counsel.

Also in this issue

Ending “Policing for Profit”: IJ Represents Utah Citizens Fighting Forfeiture Abuse

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