Brentwood tries to recast image amid 'Contributor' legal challenge

Sunday, July 17, 2011 at 10:05pm
Jude Ferrara (SouthComm) 

In the summer drama pitting The Contributor street newspaper and its ragged salespeople against the city of Brentwood, the citizens of this largely Republican Nashville suburb say they have been unfairly typecast as heartless snobs. They insist their police gave tickets to seven salespeople not to chase the unsightly homeless from the city’s sidewalks, but to head off inevitable accidents on their car-clogged streets. 

Whether a judge believes that claim is the key question in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed this month against Brentwood by The Contributor and the ACLU of Tennessee.

Brentwood Police Chief Ricky Watson said his officers had no choice but to write the tickets because The Contributor salespeople were walking out into traffic to collect dollars from motorists for their newspapers. 

“We warned them numerous times prior to issuing any citation,” Watson said. “They refused to comply, so they were cited. It’s not only their safety. It’s the safety of the public in general. These cars were stopping unexpectedly at intersections. It’s just a safety concern. The citizens of Brentwood are a very generous people. But the first time somebody gets hurt, we’re going to be accused of failing to act. We’re kind of in a no-win situation here.”

The controversy started an argument between newspaper columnists in Nashville and its suburb to the south. The Tennessean’s Gail Kerr accused Brentwood of running The Contributor’s salespeople out of town because they are homeless.

“Poverty does make people uncomfortable, doesn’t it?” Kerr asked in a recent column. 

That brought a scathing rebuke from Susan Leathers, editor of the online Brentwood Home Page newspaper. 

“[A] Girl Scout selling cookies would be cited as quickly as a Contributor salesperson if local authorities deemed the action dangerous,” she wrote, then turned to “something that makes my blood boil.”

“It’s the stereotype that paints Brentwood as a snobby, prejudiced place that refuses to let its streets paved with gold be tainted by those considered less desirable than the people who live here.”

An “amazing number of volunteers” in Brentwood help the homeless, she added.

“My church, as well as many others in Brentwood, welcome Room in the Inn ‘residents’ on an ongoing basis. Habitat for Humanity in Williamson County — yes, there is a huge need for affordable homes here — knows that many of its homes were constructed with the generosity of and volunteer labor provided by Brentwood churches, businesses and residents, starting with our high school Habitat High clubs.” 

In the lawsuit, Brentwood officials already have conceded the city’s ordinance won’t stand up in court. Part of Brentwood’s original municipal code, it bans the sale of any merchandise from sidewalks, streets or public rights-of-way. The city might persuade a judge to allow an infringement on The Contributor’s free-press rights, but only if Brentwood is advancing a legitimate interest in doing so, i.e., the safety of its streets. The prohibition in the ordinance obviously is too broad. 

So last week, the Brentwood City Commission began amending the ordinance to permit newspaper sales on sidewalks but not on streets. The amended ordinance passed on first reading and should become the new law by the end of this month. 

City Attorney Roger Horner, who had been negotiating with the ACLU, said he thought the changes would appease The Contributor and head off the lawsuit.

“We assumed at that time that the ACLU was satisfied with the measures we were taking, and they didn’t wish to pursue the matter any further,” Horner told the City Commission. “We invited their input. Instead of providing that input, they filed their lawsuit in federal court.” 

With the amendments to the ordinance, Horner said he’s confident the city will win the lawsuit. “Frankly, we’re a bit puzzled as to what the lawsuit seeks to accomplish,” he said. 

But Tricia Herzfeld, ACLU-Tennessee legal director, said The Contributor’s salespeople need to be able to step off curbs and onto the streets to hand their newspapers to motorists. 

“It shuts down The Contributor completely” to limit sales to sidewalks, she said. “There’s not any pedestrian traffic in Brentwood, right?” 

Tom Wills, one of The Contributor’s founders, said salespeople are trained to make transactions safely. One vendor once refused sell a newspaper to none other than Mayor Karl Dean until he pulled over his car to the side of the street, Wills said. 

“It’s not a dangerous activity. We have standards,” Wills said. “Our own vendors are not supposed to be in the street. Our position is that vendors are allowed to sell to cars that are stopped. We do not want vendors flagging down cars that are driving down the road to make sales.”

The Contributor is wildly successful. Since starting in 2007, according to Wills, sales have grown from 5,000 copies in the first year to 500,000 last year. That has made it the largest-circulation street newspaper in the country. There are a couple dozen publications in the genre — the Oregon Vagabond, the Spare Change News in Cambridge, Mass., Chicago’s StreetWise, the Denver Voice, just to name a few. All address issues of poverty and homelessness and are distributed by poor or homeless vendors. 

Nashville’s goes for $1, and the 400 salespeople pocket 75 cents from each sale. One-third of those who were homeless when they started selling these newspapers now are off the streets, Wills said. 

The Contributor is growing so fast that salespeople have been forced to branch out to Nashville’s suburbs. In Franklin, Wills said, they have encountered trouble from police, but no tickets have been issued yet. He said he hopes the lawsuit against Brentwood will set the parameters for what his salespeople can and cannot do. 

In Nashville, police at first insisted they had to obtain permits to sell the paper. That was even though newspapers are exempt from the Metro ordinance regarding the sale of merchandise on the street. So The Contributor printed signs with the ordinance’s citation number and gave them to their salespeople
to educate police. The police don’t bother them anymore. 

“It’s fine and dandy that Davidson County is constitutionally friendly with us,” Wills said. “But when the other communities run our vendors off repeatedly, whether that be in Brentwood or Franklin or other communities outside of Nashville, it does really hurt the bottom line of our vendors. Our vendors are out there trying to create a small business. They go into these communities and they are told, ‘No you can’t do this, no you can’t do that.’ At some point we have to be able to say, ‘No, we do have the right to do this.’

“It’s not just principle,” Wills continued. “It’s a practical concern for us. We’re not in this to start a class war. We had to take action to give our vendors hope and make sure they understand that we’ve got their back, and to basically settle this issue once and for all.”  

22 Comments on this post:

By: nash615 on 7/18/11 at 5:20

Oddly enough, for once Gail Kerr has it right. I suppose the old adage about even a stopped clock being right twice a day has some merit.

Anyway, commentors have an easy choice:

- Do the usual: cue the knee-jerk ACLU and homeless bashing.


- Give a $1 to a Contributor vendor today!

By: govskeptic on 7/18/11 at 6:06

Brentwood is exactly right in keeping these sales out of the highways. While the
ACLU is calling this a First Amendment questions, it's truly a safety issue as well.
This publisher is, of course, profit motivated and we will soon have the same one
publishing a couple of different, but still the same, papers for other interest groups
to sale on the streets. We already have vendors at the bottom of almost every
Exit ramp and most busy interchanges with likely more to come! NY City had to put
a stop to those "Washing you windshield" every time your auto came to a stop!
Enough here as well!

By: bartsdad on 7/18/11 at 6:24

Just odd how they seem to have no problems in other areas of Nashville. I happily support the Contributor - it is addressing a growing problem head-on.

By: Kosh III on 7/18/11 at 8:12

Do the Shriners step out into traffic to get their contributions? I've seen them in my part of town actually standing between traffic lanes.

By: macjedi on 7/18/11 at 8:44

Girl Scouts are not exercising the freedom of the press. They're an organization profiting and fundraising. End of comparison.

Brentwood has ALWAYS needed to find a way to shed the "heartless snobs" rep in most Nashvillian's books, this only brings it to the surface, and it is a good thing. We all should have to confront our demons some time or another.

By: Moonglow1 on 7/18/11 at 12:11

Moonglow1: Marsha Blackburn is the voice of Brentwood. Heartless, greedy, and cruel. Yes of course. Brentwood personifies the tea party. They steal from the people to give more to "their own. " These Brentwood tea's are the first in line to grab government subsidies for themselves. A good example of their operating approach is Marcus Bauchmann: an unlicensed psychologist he takes government money (your tax dollars) to pray the gay away and enrich himself & Michelle Bauchmann at your expense. And these tea's who push for self sufficiency cannot stand to see the homeless be successful. The tea's would rather "pray away the homeless" because they love God and want to make Him love them & thus absolve them for their conspicuous greed & hatred of. fair play, & justice. Ah Brentwood: gotta love their hypocritical nonsense.

By: Nashville SEO on 7/18/11 at 12:47

I've been involved with homeless ministries and I personally know multiple people who sell the Contributor—including some who have used it to get off the streets.

At first, I thought the Contributor was a great idea; but the more I have seen its effects, the more I see that it is an artificial solution that isn't helping the people who sell it.

The Contributor creates an artificial industry that doesn't require the level of reliability and respect for authority that is required to build a stable life for oneself and one's family. It enables the behaviors that cause the instability in their lives and living situations.

Yes, I have seen people get off the streets by selling it; but it is always a temporary situation that quickly unravels—due to the unaddressed issues mentioned above—leaving them back on the streets.

There are hundreds of companies in Nashville—from restaurants to retail—that face high turn-over rates, because they can't find hard-working, reliable employees. Anyone who is willing to work hard and be reliable can find employment and earn enough to afford housing.

Buying a Contributor makes it even more difficult for that person to get back on his or her feet. It's like giving an alcoholic a drink and thinking it will help them. Though they may look hungry and in need, the truth is they are not hungry enough. If we stopped enabling their behavior they would have the sufficient motivation to become a productive, stable members of the Nashville community.

By: brrrrk on 7/18/11 at 1:56

"“It’s the stereotype that paints Brentwood as a snobby, prejudiced place that refuses to let its streets paved with gold be tainted by those considered less desirable than the people who live here.”

An “amazing number of volunteers” in Brentwood help the homeless, she added."

Some people expect a pat on the back for doing something they should be doing in the first place. Miss Leathers should reacquaint herself with scripture, particularly Luke 21:1-4 which states....

"1 As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2 He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”"

By: bfra on 7/18/11 at 2:28

“[A] Girl Scout selling cookies would be cited as quickly as a Contributor salesperson if local authorities deemed the action dangerous,” she wrote, then turned to “something that makes my blood boil.”
Not a very good example! Girl Scouts are supposed to be supervised by their leader. If that leader lets those Girl Scouts disrupt traffic or put themselves in harms way, trying to sell cookies, the leader needs the ticket!

I have never had a Girl Scout, come knocking on my window, while I am in traffic, as I have the sellers of the Contributor.

By: seanche on 7/18/11 at 3:39

Sure, Brentwoodians, if you believe that story, I've got a bridge to sell you.

By: Radix on 7/18/11 at 6:22

Free speech doesn't give you a pass on traffic safety. Brentwood isn't censoring anyone.The ACLU will lose this one.

Moonglow, Blackburn is a Rep. in US congress, she has nothing to do Brentwood's city laws. Nor does Bachmann, she is from Minnesota.

By: Knofler on 7/19/11 at 5:38

First of all its is a safety issue, the main intersection that started this is a dangerous one. OHB and Franklin Rd stays congested throughout the day, and too have someone going around cars just to make a buck is not good judgement on The Contributor's part. So who will be held liable when one of these peddlers gets run over ? Will it be the ACLU, The Contributor, NO it will be the driver. That intersection wasn't designed to handle the amout of traffic that flows through there on a daily basis.

@Moonglow: You are the typical class envy POS that would rather sit around your s**ty East Nash shack and burn one all day vs getting off your left over 60's Free Love, Hippy A** and produce something. If you can't afford to live in Brentwood you know whose fault it is...........YOURS. Last time I checked poor people don't hire people.

I don't support The Contributor, like all good ideas it has benn whored out. They are on EVERY corner and the past couple months I've seen them in neighborhoods. I would question if some of them are even homeless, I've seen several of late that are to "polished" to be homeless.

By: ncpreader on 7/19/11 at 7:01

Nashville SEO hits it right on the head. I am so glad a writer sees the Contributor for what it is. A SCAM of enormous proportions. At first, I thought it was a good idea. But,after a time, these sellers need to become qualified for steady work in organizations where they can acrue social security benefits and pay their payroll taxes.
Only then will they really become independent.
These vendors should only be allowed to sell these newspapers for a year and then be weaned off to steady jobs. Then I would support the Contributor. Again, I say it is just panhandling. Restaurants and retail are dying for people to work !

By: Moonglow1 on 7/19/11 at 7:01

Moonglow1: no Knofler I am not a hippie nor do I live in East Nashville. However based on your comment you assume "successful" people live in Brentwood while "freeloaders" live in East Nashville. This same elitist thinking is why Brentwood is dealing with this lawsuit.

By: conservarage on 7/19/11 at 7:20

"freedom of the press" does not give you the right to sell your paper anywhere.

"Girl Scouts are not exercising the freedom of the press. They're an organization profiting and fundraising. End of comparison."
The Contributor organization is profiting, and fundraising as well. otherwise they'd give the papers away.

By: macjedi on 7/19/11 at 7:42

Yes. Everything is a scam and everyone is out to steal your precious conservative assets. Boogeymen abound and all humans are inherently leeches. Blah blah blah teaparty blah.

By: macjedi on 7/19/11 at 7:42

Well. TeaBAGGER.

By: livinglively57 on 7/19/11 at 10:11

It's all about "rights" until someone gets hit by a car. Then it's going to be about "how much"? Just watch and see....Bart Durham or another of the injury lawyers will make a small fortune. I am extremely cautious when anyone trying to hawk or collect at an intersection is darting in and out of the cars. NO ONE should be allowed to sell newspapers or take collections if it involves walking out into street full of vehicles.

I don't buy The Contributor. I've bought it three times and it was majorly depressing. It was also a month when some writer was very angry with downtown churches for not allowing the homeless to loiter on their property. Somehow, people have got it in their heads that a church is not supposed to say "NO" ever to the poor, homeless, needy,etc....Churches ARE NOT in the charity business! They are in the "soul winning" business! The parishoners, congregants, members, i.e., financial supporters of the church have a right to say what their church can and cannot do.

Being that I don't support The Contributor, I do give to Safe Haven, Second Harvest, Room at the Inn and several homeless citizens that I have interacted with for years working and living downtown.

I feel The Contributor exploits the homeless. It's depressing and I just don't need it. I don't like something being marketed to me based on A) guilt that I have something they don't and B) I'm supposed to buy something I have no use for out of that guilt.

I also feel that if Brentwood or Bordeaux do not want hawking of anything on their street corners, then they as tax-paying residents have the right to vote on whether to allow it or not, Personally, I think it's unsafe as heck.

By: RJP on 7/19/11 at 10:46

rjp Not every news paper vendor is selling newpapers have been asked many times if i was looking for something else besides a newpaper. When their clothes and jewelery cost more than my car and they don't have a vendor licence around their neck you do feel a bit uneasy when they rush up to your car.Seems the closer you get to down town the more dealers you see,and their crews close by.Nicer the area dealers there also with papers in hand.And we aint talking paper dealers!

By: localboy on 7/20/11 at 8:40

"This same elitist thinking is why Brentwood is dealing with this lawsuit."
Elitist? Anyone stepping into the steet in Brentwood is subject to a fine - that's the very definition of populist or democratic (whoops, can't use THAT word within Brentwood city limits!).

By: womensworkusa on 7/29/11 at 10:01

This is the same wealthy Brentwood that sent around letters to all residents of neighboring Franklin telling them NOT to use THEIR library any more, despite the fact that a portion of STATE money built it.

This is the same wealthy Brentwood that had spoiled brats come to a Franklin football game daring to hold up signs saying: You mothers clean our houses.

This is the same Brentwood that has no center of town of their own, so they use that in Franklin [around the statue of the Confederate soldier] for all of their events, leaving behind messes the residents of Franklin have to clean up.

So, why am I not surprised.Brentwoodites find homeless men selling newspapers an eyesore?

By: yucchhii on 8/11/11 at 12:52

I'm homeless and I don't understand what the problem is....Now this is the way I see it. "IF" the police officers are "TRUTHFULL" in what they claim, then I ask "What is the problem? They ARE doing they're job and rightfully so! This is NOT a matter of "Freedom of the press and it's FAR from it! They are SIMPLY trying to avert injuries and/or DEATH! "IF" police are doing what SOME officers are doing by fabricating things for their own gain, then I'm for the contributor. Somehow, I thing this is on the up and up and I believe the police are doing right!! This is as stupid as the woman who sued McDonalds because the HOT coffee was HOT! DUH!!!