Booksellers File Federal Suit Challenging City of New Orleans’ Book Vending Ban

John Kramer
John Kramer · April 8, 2003

Washington, D.C.—Vendors in New Orleans may sell razor blades on the street, but not books. That might change, however, if two would-be vendors are successful in a federal lawsuit they filed today with the help of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice.

Josh Wexler and Anne Jordan Blanton love books and dream about starting their own bookselling business. They don’t have enough money to open their own bookstore, so when they moved to New Orleans in August 2001, they immediately began planning to start a business vending books on the street.

As of April 2003, Josh and Jordan still had not opened their business. They have the books, the table and the motivation to succeed, but they ran into a snag. In the home of Tennessee Williams and other literary giants, the City of New Orleans flatly prohibits selling books on the street.

Josh and Jordan could sell food, flowers or razor blades, but no John Steinbeck, no Tom Wolfe and no Tennessee Williams.

After two visits and more than a dozen calls by Josh and Jordan to City officials, it’s quite clear that the City has no intention of letting them and their books out on the street. Josh and Jordan want to engage in an honest and honorable occupation, and they want to operate legally, without fear of arrest, fines or being shut down.

To do that without running afoul of the law, Josh and Jordan first must change that law. And that is why they have turned to the courts. On April 8, 2003, Josh and Jordan filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against the City of New Orleans, seeking to have the City’s blatantly unconstitutional laws and policies struck down. These laws violate the constitutional rights of entrepreneurs like Josh and Jordan by arbitrarily denying them free speech and the right to earn an honest living in their chosen profession.

Dana Berliner, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, declared, “The ramifications of this lawsuit extend far beyond New Orleans and the parties involved. Hundreds of cities limit street vending of books and other goods in all kinds of irrational ways—allowing some businesses and arbitrarily excluding other perfectly harmless ones. Rather than focusing on simple vending rules to protect health, safety and traffic flow, most cities impose whatever limits and costs happen to strike official fancy.”

In a detailed background paper produced for the Institute for Justice, Berliner pointed out that anti-competitive licensing requirements are not unique to the street vending business. More than 500 occupations—approximately 10 percent of all jobs in the United States—require that individuals have permission from the state, in the form of a license, before they can pursue their chosen occupation. For many of these occupations, from shorthand court reporter to fence installer, the rationale for licensing is non-existent.

“We spent years in New York feeding our love of books by buying from street book table vendors,” Wexler explained. “When we moved to New Orleans, a city with such a rich literary tradition, we were surprised to find not only that such a culture did not exist, but that there was such a resistance on the part of city officials to it.”

Blanton said, “We are not trying to get anything special from the government; we just want to earn an honest living sharing our love of books.”

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

Swedenburg v. Kelly
IJ suit on behalf of Virginia and California vintners as well as New York wine consumers led a federal judge to declare unconstitutional New York State’s laws that barred the interstate direct shipment of wine to New York consumers.
Cornwell v. California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology
IJ represented African hairbraiders to defeat California’s cosmetology licensing requirements for their craft.
Clutter v. Transportation Services Authority
IJ busted up Las Vegas’ entrenched limousine cartel that had stifled competition by blocking new entrants.
Taucher v. Born
IJ sets an early and important precedent extending First Amendment protection to software developers and Internet publishers. The CFTC had sought to license these individuals.
Uqdah v. D.C. Board of Cosmetology
IJ’s work in court and the court of public opinion on behalf of D.C. hairbraiders led the District of Columbia to deregulate the cosmetology industry.
Jones v. Temmer
IJ helped three would-be cab company owners overcome Colorado’s 50-year-old taxicab cartel. (IJ then helped break down government-sanctioned taxi monopolies in Indianapolis and Cincinnati.)
• Ricketts v. City of New York
IJ’s advocacy helped strike down the New York City Council’s veto of new van services.

Attorney Robert S. Eitel, who regularly litigates commercial, employment and civil rights cases in federal and state courts, will assist the Institute for Justice as local counsel in New Orleans.