TRAVIS LOLLER, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A Nashville newspaper about homelessness sued the wealthy suburb of Brentwood on Wednesday over the right of its vendors to distribute there.
The case comes after several vendors of The Contributor were cited by police for selling the $1 newspaper on the city's sidewalks. One of them, Calvin Hart, 49, is now party to the federal lawsuit that asks the courts to declare unconstitutional Brentwood's ordinance prohibiting the sales.
The Contributor, Hart and vendor Andrew Harrington are suing in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, alleging violations of their rights to free speech, expression and the press.
Hart has spent most of his life gainfully employed and housed. But after a series of tragedies that included his house burning down and an injury that left him unable to work, he found himself at the Nashville Rescue Mission in 2007, he said in a Wednesday interview.
Hart eventually got a small insurance settlement, recovered his health and late last year started his own business as an on-site computer repairman. But in January, with few clients and no savings, a friend suggested he try selling The Contributor to make ends meet. He hadn't been at it long before he was cited by the Brentwood Police.
Hart and several other Brentwood vendors contested the citations but in March were fined a collective $125. It's not a huge sum, but enough to prevent people struggling to survive from coming back to the city. Hart never returned to sell in Brentwood and The Contributor began advising its vendors to stay away, according to the lawsuit.
Hart said he picked Brentwood to sell papers because "that's where the money is."
The city has a median household income of $128,339, nearly three times the statewide median of $42,943, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates from 2005-2009. Only 1.4 percent of the city's families are below the poverty level. That number is 12.2 percent for Tennessee overall, according to the same statistics.
That's part of why it was so disappointing to be treated ungenerously by Brentwood authorities, Hart said, calling them "elitist."
Brentwood issued a statement Wednesday saying it was surprised by the lawsuit. According to the statement, the city had been in discussions with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, which is representing the plaintiffs, and is changing its ordinance to make it clear that it is not illegal to sell newspapers from the sidewalk, as long as vendors do not enter the street.
"Walking into a public street to sell newspapers or anything else creates a safety risk," the statement reads. "It is not the City's intention to prohibit the sale of newspapers, nor does the City wish to discriminate against anyone, including persons who happen to be homeless."
ACLU of Tennessee Legal Director Tricia Herzfeld said a draft of the amended ordinance sent to her by the city continues to be excessively restrictive. For instance, it would not allow vendors to sell to anyone in a car.
The Contributor is a nonprofit that aims to educate the public on homelessness while helping its vendors financially. Co-founder Tasha French said some vendors have been able to secure housing with the income they earn.
The paper seeks to put a human face on homelessness, not just through its articles, which often focus on poverty, but also through the face-to-face interaction between the vendors and their customers, co-founder Tom Wills said.
With a monthly circulation of about 115,000, The Contributor has more than twice the circulation of any other homeless paper in the U.S. and Canada, said French, who also serves as president of the North American Street Newspaper Association.
Wills said vendors travel to several of the municipalities surrounding Nashville, with some going as far as Murfreesboro, about 30 miles to the southeast, but Brentwood is the only city that has actually prosecuted and fined vendors for selling the paper.
The ACLU of Tennessee's Herzfeld said this is the only lawsuit of its kind that she knows of.