On inauguration weekend, scores of newspaper vending boxes found a new home—under the 11th Street Bridge.

It’s the Thursday after Inauguration Day, and dozens of squat metal boxes sit huddled on a patch of mud and gravel on O Street SE, loaded with week-old editions of newspapers. These are the same sort of vending machines that sit on nearly every street corner in the District. Only this out-of-the-way Department of Public Works (DPW) storage lot is no place to buy a paper: It’s run by the Public Space Maintenance Administration’s Street & Alley Cleaning Division.

The machines have come a long way from their original homes on bustling downtown sidewalks. But they’ll probably spend a few more nights here—or as long as it takes for their owners to come rescue them.

On inauguration weekend, at least 150 newspaper boxes representing 36 different publications—from the New York Times to the Washington Afro-American to the Washington City Paper—ended up here beneath the 11th Street Bridge. All the publications had reached an agreement with city authorities to voluntarily remove their boxes before the Jan. 20 inauguration parade from an area stretching from 18th Street NW to 2nd Street SE, but security officials apparently uprooted additional news boxes that were outside the agreed-upon security area.

Now, people like Joe Neuhof must make arrangements to pick up a slew of the 50-pound boxes from the DPW lot and haul the bulky contraptions back to their intended locations throughout the city. Neuhof works as vice president of marketing for National News, a Bladensburg-based firm that distributes national papers—such as the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, and Investor’s Business Daily—throughout the D.C. area. Neuhof, like several other local newspaper distributors and publishers, says he was well-aware of the area that the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) had designated a “security zone.”

“We definitely had crews out there that picked up all the boxes we were supposed to pick up before the deadline,” says Neuhof. “At the last minute, the city apparently decided to take away an additional number of boxes that were outside the parameters of that security area. Then, the city basically impounded all these boxes. And when the parade was over, they just left them there.”

In preparation for large-scale public events such as the inaugural parade, it’s standard procedure for the Secret Service and the MPD to order the temporary removal of potential security threats from public streets. Because newspaper vending machines, like mailboxes, are possible hiding places for bombs, the MPD typically asks publications to pick up their boxes from specific areas in advance of particular events.

Big, locally based papers such as the Washington Post and USA Today have traditionally viewed police requests to remove large numbers of vending boxes as unrealistic at best, draconian at worst. According to several local publishing sources, both papers have previously threatened litigation when asked to clear their dispensers off the streets for large downtown rallies. Given that the security area for the inauguration of President George W. Bush was by far the largest ever, the Post and USA Today were grudging in their pledges to comply with the latest box-removal plan.

“It is important for newspapers to make clear that such restrictions [the temporary removal of boxes] for future events present problems for us—both for legal and business reasons,” wrote the Post’s vice president for government affairs, Carol Melamed, in a Jan. 10 letter to MPD Cmdr. Christopher Cooch. (Melamed did not return phone calls for this story.)

Citing logistical nightmares and free-speech interests, attorneys representing the Post and USA Today urged police officials to pare down the size of the proposed security area. Those efforts were to no avail, however. Early last month, the MPD asked local newspapers and distributors to remove their boxes from the specified security zone before 12:01 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 19. The security zone was to encompass not only the inaugural parade route, but also a sizable chunk of the downtown area. Hundreds of boxes lining sidewalks from the White House to the Capitol had to go.

Many publications—including the Washington City Paper—that complied with the agreement later found an additional handful of their boxes down under the 11th Street Bridge, days after the inauguration.

If not for Kathy Sinzinger, the publisher of the Common Denominator, the location of the boxes might have remained unknown for longer. After discovering some of her own paper’s boxes at the DPW lot last week, Sinzinger faxed a memo to all the other publications whose boxes were stranded under the bridge. Noting the time and labor costs wasted on retrieving the machines, Sinzinger suggested in her memo that she was considering legal action against the D.C. government “before this situation gets any further out of hand.”

One plausible explanation for how the boxes wound up in the lot is that the Secret Service—or perhaps the MPD—expanded the security zone after the Jan. 19 deadline and ordered the DPW to remove the additional boxes. But officials at the MPD, the DPW, and the Secret Service all decline to say if that is what happened.

“Hypothetically, the Secret Service could certainly have made a last-minute decision to remove more boxes, but I can’t confirm or deny that,” says Secret Service spokesperson Marc Connolly. “We certainly apologize for any possible inconvenience that results from security precautions.”

DPW spokesperson Mary Myers says that her department’s trucks made just one sweep of the security zone, immediately after the Jan. 19 deadline, to remove any boxes that publications had failed to pick up. But she adds that she has no record of the number of boxes the DPW actually carted off. And, she says, the DPW has no record of picking up any boxes outside the security zone.

MPD officials referred all questions about the removal of newspaper boxes to Cooch, who did not return repeated phone messages left at his office.

Down at the Street & Alley Cleaning Division lot, nobody will say whether the DPW intended to return the boxes to their original stations or notify publications of their whereabouts. “Those boxes came here because the Secret Service wanted them here,” says one department employee, who declined to give his name. “When the Secret Service does something, you don’t ask them any questions or anything.”

Retrieving the displaced property is not simply a hassle; box removals also raise certain First Amendment questions. As Sinzinger and other critics of the removal argue, subtracting all newspaper boxes from the heart of the downtown area—during the nation’s most celebrated democratic event, no less—unfairly deprives the public of access to the written word.

And this isn’t the first time newspaper boxes have caused a stir. In the past decade, numerous newspaper publishers and local governments have clashed over the placement of distribution racks and vending boxes. Between 1996 and 1998, for example, at least a half-dozen counties in South Carolina and Georgia passed regulations limiting the number of newspaper boxes that could be placed in and around public buildings such as courthouses and libraries. Recently, several large cities, such as San Francisco and Dallas, have moved to ban virtually all free-standing sidewalk news racks and replace them with city-controlled “multiracks” that display several newspapers and all sorts of advertisements.

“A fair number of cities are trying to regulate the aesthetics of public spaces, and vending boxes are being targeted as a result,” says Paul McMasters, the First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum, a media think tank in Arlington. “But it seems clear that newspaper owners can make a pretty strong constitutional challenge in response to these actions.”

Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the Washington-area branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that the recent removal of boxes in D.C. wasn’t intended to frustrate the public’s First Amendment rights, but concedes that many people might reasonably see that as the end result.

“In this case…the government had a right to take private property into custody for security reasons,” says Spitzer, “but it certainly didn’t have a right to effectively junk it.” CP