USA Today's high-profile sales provoke some cities

''We woke up one morning and there they were, chained to everything - lamp posts, bus stop signs, parking meters, you name it,'' says a businessman in the Boston suburb of Wellesley. ''It's awful, honky-tonk; the main street looks like a bus stop.''

The blue and white TV-shaped boxes belong to USA Today, a national newspaper beginning distribution in the Boston area Sept. 12. USA Today officials say 90 percent of its sales come from such vending machines, and they expect eventually to have thousands of the $250 boxes scattered throughout New England.

About 12 of the news racks were chained up in Wellesley before police halted their distribution, citing local ordinances prohibiting obstructions in public ways.

Thomas Lee, executive secretary for Wellesley's Board of Selectmen, says lawyers for USA Today had sent a letter to the town asking if there were any regulations regarding vending machines for newspapers. ''The town clerk stuck her head in the door of the selectmen's office and asked, 'Any regulations on vending machines?' The quick answer was 'No.' ''

''The next thing we knew, they came in like gang busters and chained the things all over. Then the phones started ringing with irate people'' asking why the town allowed it to happen, he says. ''So now we're looking at local bylaws to see what control we have, for instance, over things obstructing traffic or snow removal.''

The newspaper has run into similar disputes in communities in Illinois, California, Minnesota, Florida, New Hampshire, and New York. (In New York City, for example, the boxes were actually bolted to the sidewalks. After negotiations between the city and USA Today, the boxes were chained to light poles instead.)

But where local officials have tried to block the placement of the news racks , the courts have ruled that their actions violate the due-process clause and the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The City of Malden, just north of Boston, was surprised with as many as 18 of the boxes, says city solicitor Jordan Shapiro.

''At first USA Today's lawyers sent us an anonymous letter saying they 'represent a client,' and requested a copy of local ordinances dealing with placement of news racks.''

''We woke up last Monday and there they were. They came in here at night and didn't tell us. It's not so much that they did it, but it's the way they did it, '' Mr. Shapiro says.

The City of Malden told the newspaper that the news racks had to be removed by the end of last week. But US Federal Court Judge W.Arthur Garrity Jr. ruled that under First Amendment guarantees of freedom of the press, the racks could stay.

''Unfortunately the city laws are simply outdated, and we need to draw up some new criteria such as safety, cleanliness, aesthetics, and so forth for granting permits,'' Shapiro says.

Eleven other communities are banding together with Malden, he says, to draft an ordinance with reasonable regulations. Otherwise these papers will ''take over the cities,'' he says.

In Reading, north of Boston, police removed the news racks from street-light poles, and the company came by to pick them up.

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