A sacred right for some is so much litter to others

COPAKE—It’s like a message in a bottle, only it’s a paper in a plastic bag.

It is not a welcome sight to some people. Not so much because of what’s in it, but because of where it is tossed.

Aware of the complaints, the paper’s publisher says he is working to improve the distribution of the paper, which is protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of the press.

For the second month in a row complaints about the publication, called Shop & Find, were aired at the Copake Town Board’s June 11 meeting.

Showing a photograph of a row of mailboxes with the bagged papers stuffed in between them and an overflow of papers piling up on the roadside below, Copake Lake resident Lindsay LeBrecht said the papers are being dropped near mailboxes around the lake and with one good wind will be blown into the water to pollute it. The people who are doing this think it’s their “First Amendment right, but to me and a lot of other people this is littering,” she told the board.

Shop and Find is a six-page, folded, broadsheet-sized publication primarily containing advertisements, both on its pages and in the form of inserts–the multi-page advertising fliers from big retail stores–with a bit of police blotter sprinkled in.

Published by Columbia-Greene Media, which also puts out the daily Register-Star newspaper based in Hudson and the Daily Mail in Catskill, Shop & Find is free and 34,000 copies of it go out weekly to a distribution area in Columbia and Greene counties.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Mark Vinciguerra, the publisher, told The Columbia Paper earlier this week. He said he is aware of the complaints and is trying to balance the concerns of those who do not want the publication and his company’s constitutional right under the First Amendment to deliver it.

Characterizing the situation as the “unwanted distribution of advertisements,” Copake Town Supervisor Jeff Nayer said the company thinks “it has the right to litter.”

In response to residents’ complaints about the paper, which can be seen strewn on lawns, driveways, porches, walkways and roadsides, Mr. Nayer said he has spoken to law enforcement and County Attorney Robert Fitzsimmons.

Mr. Fitzsimmons found a Columbia County law “prohibiting certain distribution of unrequested publications,” enacted in March 2001. Section 2 of the law says, “No person shall throw, place or deposit, or cause or permit to be thrown, placed, or deposited, upon any lawn, field, driveway, sidewalk, or path in the County of Columbia owned by another person or entity any written communication unless the owner… has previously subscribed or contracted to receive such written communication or otherwise given consent…” Violation of the law is punishable by imprisonment in the County Jail for not more than 15 days or by a fine of between $50 and $250 or both. Penalties increase for repeat offenses.

Mr. Nayer said the county attorney is currently reviewing the law to see if it needs updating. If need be, the supervisor said, the town will enact its own law to deal with the littering.

Accumulating papers over time can tip off crooks that a property is uninhabited or inhabited part-time, he said, noting that other towns, Taghkanic and Greenport among them, are facing the same situation.

Mr. Vinciguerra said Shop & Find, “a weekly extended market product” is going to non-subscribers of the Register-Star and Daily Mail. It was previously mailed, “saturation mail,” through the U.S. Postal Service. But “we had issues with the quality of that delivery. It was harming our product, which was getting there late or not at all.”

It was because of those issues that the decision was made to distribute the publication, at least 65% of it, via the carrier force that already delivers the daily newspapers to subscriber households.

Carriers are instructed to deliver the papers “as close to the door most used by residents,” said Mr. Vinciguerra, noting that in rural areas that sometimes means driveways or near mailboxes.

If a carrier sees that the paper from the prior week is still there, they should not leave another one, he said.

The company has invested in “sky hooks,” which can be affixed to a postal receptacle or its post or pole, which would allow the carrier to hang the paper on it, rather than throw it on the ground. He said the plan is to ask people if they would like to have one of the hooks. “They can opt in or opt out,” he said.

Also, people, who do not want to receive the paper can call the company to have delivery cancelled, and the company has now hired “verifiers” who go out and confirm whether an address is a vacant location.

“We have more calls from people who want the product than don’t want it,” Mr. Vinciguerra said, noting he had received a call from a woman who thanked him for the paper because the police blotter inside made her aware that a child molester lived nearby. Another woman, who lives in a trailer park where the owner will not permit the distribution of the paper, called to ask him how she can get the paper because she needs the coupons inside to maintain her household budget.

To those who call the method in which the paper is distributed “littering,” Mr. Vinciguerra says “to equate it with throwing a cigarette butt out a window is ludicrous.” He praised the First Amendment for its protection of advertising content as well as editorial content, noting “that’s the beauty of it.”

But at the Copake board meeting Supervisor Nayer said he was exercising his freedom of speech by advising residents who don’t want the “trashing of our area” to continue to call the advertisers in the Shop & Find paper and tell them they will not be shopping at their stores, buying their products or enlisting their services because of the way the paper is being distributed. “That’s the power of the people,” he said.

In the meantime, Greenport Town Supervisor John Porreca said by phone this week that his town already has a littering law on the books and at the June 3 Town Board meeting Greenport Police Chief Kevin Marchetto was instructed to enforce it. Mr. Porreca said the subject is slated to be discussed further with the town attorney at the June 30 workshop meeting and noted that the paper distribution is also an issue in Hudson.

A call to Mayor William Hallenbeck about the matter was not returned by press deadline.

Columbia County Sheriff David Bartlett said by phone that his office has received many complaints about how the paper is being distributed and is awaiting the outcome of a review of the county law by the county attorney.

To contact Diane Valden email

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