ASHLAND — Representatives from newspapers including the Ashland Daily Tidings, Mail Tribune, the Oregonian, the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal said they are pulling most of their newspaper boxes from downtown Ashland in response to a new $25 annual fee per box being imposed by the city government.

ASHLAND — Representatives from newspapers including the Ashland Daily Tidings, Mail Tribune, the Oregonian, the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal said they are pulling most of their newspaper boxes from downtown Ashland in response to a new $25 annual fee per box being imposed by the city government.

Until this month, newspaper boxes could sit on public sidewalks for free.

Newspaper distributors said it doesn't make financial sense to pay to have their boxes sprinkled around downtown. Some distributors said they will pay the $25 fee to keep a few boxes where newspaper sales can justify the cost, such as near the Mix dessert shop and Geppetto's Restaurant.

The city of Ashland designated one free zone for newspaper boxes in front of Starbucks coffee shop, near the Chamber of Commerce.

A host of free publications also are being charged a $25 annual fee to occupy one shelf space inside new multi-publication racks. The racks were donated to the city by the Daily Tidings and the Mail Tribune and were refurbished by the city.

Peter Quince, local distributor of the New York Times and USA Today, said he has already pulled most of his newspaper boxes from downtown. Depending on its location, he said a newspaper box earns about $5 to $30 per month in profit.

He said people enjoyed seeing The New York Times and USA Today downtown.

"I think they make the city look like it's connected to the outside world. Visitors love seeing them. It adds character," Quince said. "I'm more concerned about the loss of the local publications, which are the best check on local government."

Quince said he believes the city's actions intrude on Americans' rights to free expression and freedom of the press.

Duane Wolfe, single copy distributor for the Daily Tidings and the Mail Tribune, said the two papers expect to have three newspaper boxes in downtown: one in the free zone by Starbucks, plus one each in the $25 fee areas near Mix dessert shop and Geppetto's Restaurant.

"It limits our exposure," Wolfe said. "When you do the analysis of how many papers we were selling versus the $25 fee per site per year, it was not feasible when you throw in our overhead."

Wolfe said Daily Tidings and Mail Tribune newspaper sales are stronger at grocery stores and other sites beyond the downtown, so dropping a few boxes would not have a big impact on sales.

Most of the Daily Tidings and Mail Tribune newspapers distributed in Ashland are delivered directly to homes where residents have subscriptions.

The new $25 fee applies only to public sidewalks downtown.

"We are having our lawyers look into it right now and are waiting to hear back from them," said Bob Hunter, editor of the Daily Tidings and the Mail Tribune. "If the city were trying to impose a fee or other restrictions on us for newspaper sales on private property, that would clearly be overstepping their authority. Since it's on public right of way, it's less clear, so we're waiting to get some legal advice on it."

ACLU of Oregon Executive Director David Fidanque said it would be clearly unconstitutional if the city of Ashland charged some publications the $25 fee but didn't charge others. He said he's not sure whether the fee is unconstitutional if all the papers have to pay.

"I think we would be very interested in looking at this issue," he said.

Charles Hinkle, attorney for the Oregonian, said the city of Portland sometimes tries to restrict the number of newspaper boxes there, but always backs down when he sends them a warning letter.

Hinkle said federal courts have allowed governments to impose license or permit fees on newspaper rack owners, but only to cover administrative costs associated with issuing licenses or permits and policing First Amendment activity — not to raise revenue for the government. The administrative costs must be proven.

Hinkle said $10 annual fees have been allowed, but he's not sure whether a $25 annual fee per newspaper box can be justified.

Ashland Public Works Director Mike Faught said the city had originally proposed a $58 per box annual fee, but lowered that after meetings with newspaper distributors.

He said the $25 fee will help offset the city of Ashland's costs to process permits and maintain the boxes.

City Councilor Greg Lemhouse said he was surprised to hear that many newspaper distributors are pulling boxes out of the downtown area. He said he thought city officials and newspaper representatives met and came up with the $25 fee together.

"We all want the downtown to look nice," he said. "This is an effort to clean up the downtown."

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.