Book Venders & IJ Win First Amendment Case Against the City of New Orleans

John Kramer
John Kramer · June 17, 2003

Washington, D.C.—Book venders in New Orleans and the Institute for Justice won an important First Amendment victory today when a federal court struck down as unconstitutional the City of New Orleans’ blanket ban on selling books on the street. 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. The Honorable Stanwood R. Duval, Jr., serving on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, ruled that City’s ordinance “operates as an overriding ban on book-selling” and “[a]s a consequence of this finding, the First Amendment applies in this case because book selling is a form of expression . . . . [Wexler and Blanton] will be denied First Amendment freedoms if the ordinance is enforced whereas [the City of New Orleans] does not appear to be at risk of suffering any harm.”

For a year and a half, officials from the City of New Orleans have 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 such permits were not issued. The City Code makes vending without a license a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to five months in jail.

The judge found that the City “did not put on a single witness or any evidence to establish that book vending from a table would cause congestion or create a hazard for pedestrians. . . . [T]he exhibits that the plaintiffs have submitted of the sidewalk area they wish to use illustrate that there is ample space for pedestrian traffic and for the plaintiffs to conduct their business.”

“New Orleans’ policy of banning book vending through the city is unquestionably unconstitutional and we’re glad the court agreed,” said Dana Berliner, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which defended Wexler and Blanton free of charge. “Cities nationwide constantly try to stop people from starting entrepreneurial businesses. This decision reminds them that their regulations must follow the Constitution.”

Josh and Jordan filed their lawsuit on April 8, 2003, with the help of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, charging that the City’s ban on book and blank journal vending violates their right to free speech and their right to earn an honest living in their chosen profession. After a preliminary injunction was issued by the judge, Josh and Jordan began selling their books on the sidewalk near Audubon Park and at the intersection of Esplanade and Decatur.

Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice has a long record of success in representing entrepreneurial Davids against government Goliaths.