‘Streetvibes’ Boycotts its Own Award

Vendors aren’t allowed to work there

Staff Report

'Streetvibes' can't be distributed on Fountain Square. Art by Anne Skove.

The Cincinnati Human Relations Commission announced it would present an award to Streetvibes on July 26 for giving job opportunities to people who have disabilities. But Streetvibes declined to attend the award presentation because it was on Fountain Square, where vendors are prohibited from distributing the newspaper.

“If our vendors aren’t welcome on Fountain Square, the staff and volunteers don’t want to be there either,” said Gregory Flannery, editor of Streetvibes.

The Human Relations Commission held a four-hour celebration July 26 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal law forbids discrimination in hiring practices and requires public facilities to be accessible to people who have disabilities. Speakers included U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Cincinnati) and City Manager Milton Dohoney.

Streetvibes is an employment system for homeless and other low-income people. Vendors, some with physical or emotional disabilities, purchase copies of the paper for 25 cents each and offer them for a donation of $1.

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) manages Fountain Square under a contract with the city. A city ordinance and 3CDC rules effectively forbid Streetvibes vendors from distributing the paper on Fountain Square, according to Kelly Leon, spokeswoman for 3CDC.

Flannery says he questions the constitutionality of any ban on distributing a newspaper on public property. He also points to a 2002 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court throwing out an ordinance that banned religious displays on Fountain Square. Justice Paul Stevens cited “the square’s historic character as a public forum.”

“I doubt that 3CDC’s rules trump a Supreme Court ruling or the First Amendment,” Flannery says. “Fountain Square is a public forum. How can the city of Cincinnati ban a newspaper from a public forum?”

Flannery says efforts to get 3CDC and the city to allow Streetvibes vendors to work on the square have so far been fruitless. Leon directed him to call the city solicitor’s office, which didn’t answer phone calls or an e-mail, he said.

Last week, on the paper’s behalf, attorney William Gallagher wrote to the city solicitor.

“I write this to you hoping you will take steps to remove a practice that strikes me as unfair and many as unconstitutional. … 3CDC permits corporations to make money on the square on a regular basis by selling food, drinks and products,” Gallagher wrote. “It permits CityBeat to distribute daily its newspaper on the square. The Enquirer is immediately accessible to someone on the square. However, members of our community who are struggling to find shelter, food and stability are denied an opportunity to sell a newspaper on public property by a private corporation allegedly working in the city’s interests.”

Flannery says he hopes the matter can be resolved without the need for further litigation against the city. Streetvibes is published by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, which filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the city last month. At issue in that case is a city regulation that requires homeless shelters to take action against residents who panhandle.

If the Human Relations Commission presents the award to Streetvibes anywhere besides Fountain Square, the paper will be glad to receive it, according to Flannery.

“The 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is an occasion worthy of celebration,” he says. “But to offer an award for our work with vendors at a location where they are unwelcome – prohibited by law – is insensitive at best and hypocritical at worst.”