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BOC OKs ordinance to tackle handbills

COVINGTON -- The county commissioners recently passed an ordinance requiring cleanup of unsolicited handbills and advertisements within four days.

The revision to the Litter and Solid Waste Management Ordinance, which was passed April 6, was written to comply with court decisions allowing for regulation of litter that are narrowly tailored not to interfere with the constitutionally protected exercise of free speech.

The county cannot prohibit distribution of handbills and advertising -- such as public announcements, political endorsements, commercial advertisements, invitations, newspapers, pamphlets, posters and the like -- because it is protected under the Georgia and U.S. constitutions, said James Griffin with the Newton County Attorney's Office. Likewise, the county can't require advance notification or a permit to distribute those materials.

But the county can enforce cleanup of such materials under its litter ordinance.

"Essentially, for four days it's free speech. After four days, it's litter," Griffin said.

Distributors of such materials are required to pick up their publications within four days or else face a citation for littering.

Griffin said the western part of the county has been inundated with unsolicited materials, particularly on Sunday afternoons.

Commissioners Nancy Schulz and Mort Ewing said they've experienced problems in both their districts and received numerous complaints from constituents.

Schulz said newspapers are winding up in the storm sewer during the rainy season and asked how to prevent that. Griffin responded the only course would be to require the cleanup proposed by the ordinance.

"Cleaning up pollution is something we've got quite a lot of leeway to do. Free speech, we don't have," he said.

Commissioner Earnest Simmons said he was concerned that during the political season, flyers could blow from mailboxes or doors onto lawns, or campaign workers might not do as they're told, and political candidates would face the consequences.

"I don't want to see that go back on the candidate," said Simmons, who is running for re-election.

Griffin said in all cases, code enforcement will work with violators to get compliance and only take the most egregious violators to Magistrate Court.

"The purpose is to get compliance. The purpose is not to drag citizens into court just for the purpose of dragging them into court," he said.

If property owners contact publishers and request in writing not to receive additional material and delivery continues, the publisher will be in violation of the ordinance, Griffin said.

Tacking, posting or nailing any paper or signs to a telegraph, telephone or electric light pole on any public right of way is prohibited. The ordinance is effective immediately.