Court Rules Yellow Pages Are Protected Speech

from the and-landfills-groan dept

A couple of years ago, the publishers of a number of phone books in the Seattle area sued the city for passing a new ordinance that required the publishers to pay a fee and subscribe to an opt-out program. The ordinance was implemented to allow Seattle residents to opt-out of phone book deliveries and the fee was created to pay for the program. The publishers sued stating that this fee and the other regulations that came with it violated the publishers' First Amendment rights.

While we lost track of the lawsuit over the following years, it finally made its way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in which the three judge panel ruled that the city's ordinance did indeed violate the First Amendment rights of the publishers. The ruling is very thorough in defining just why the phone book is protected by the First Amendment and thus requires strict scrutiny before any regulations can be applied.
To be sure, the Yellow Pages Companies are in the business of selling advertisements and contracted to distribute the noncommercial speech to make their advertising space more desirable due to greater directory use. But it is important to keep in mind that the First Amendment protections available to newspapers and similar media do not apply only to those institutions of the type who “have played an historic role in our democracy.” To assume that every protected newspaper, magazine, television show, or tabloid’s “noncommercial” content precedes and takes priority over the publishing parent company’s desire to sell advertising is at odds with reality and the evidence in the record.

Ultimately, we do not see a principled reason to treat telephone directories differently from newspapers, magazines, television programs, radio shows, and similar media that does not turn on an evaluation of their contents. A profit motive and the inclusion or creation of noncommercial content in order to reach a broader audience and attract more advertising is present across all of them. We conclude, therefore, that the yellow pages directories are entitled to full First Amendment protection.
The city had argued that because the phone books are commercial speech they qualified for a more lenient scrutiny when it comes to regulation. This was argued because the publishers are in the business of selling advertising space and the phone books are the medium. However, the court ruled that neither the presence of advertising nor the financial motive of the publishers disqualified the noncommercial content, such as the phone listings and maps, from strict scrutiny under the First Amendment.
The Ordinance does not satisfy this standard. While arguing that the Ordinance survives intermediate scrutiny under Central Hudson, the City advanced three governmental interests: (1) waste reduction, (2) resident privacy, and (3) cost recovery. See Seattle Ordinance 123427 (Oct. 14, 2010) (Preamble). We need not determine whether any or all of these interests are “compelling”; even if they are, the Ordinance is not the least restrictive means available to further them. One clear alternative is for the City to support the Yellow Pages Companies’ own private opt-out programs. With proper implementation, the private opt-out programs could achieve precisely the same goals as the City’s registry. Even fining the Yellow Pages Companies for a lack of compliance with their own opt-out terms would be less restrictive than compelling them to fund and advertise the City’s program.
While most people these days get annoyed with the constant receipt of the yellow paper brick, that annoyance does not qualify the books for such regulation. As the court states, the city could have performed a number of other actions that would have met the needs of its citizens while still protecting the rights of the publishers. The publishers, perhaps in anticipation of this ordinance being passed, set up a voluntary opt-out program. The city could have instead promoted that voluntary program with its residents.

Despite this ruling, the future of the Yellow Pages still looks bleak. With the majority of people in the US and many other parts of the world now connected to the internet, owning a physical book of phone numbers has become rather pointless. The internet has changed the way people search for goods and services in such a way that the phone book can never compete. Without that ability to stay competitive, this ruling will do little good for these publishers in the long run.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    fogbugzd (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 2:34pm

    I will really miss the yellow pages if they stop dropping them off at my house. I hate buying commercial liners for the parakeet's cage.

     

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  2.  
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    davebarnes (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 2:50pm

    Why are Yellow Pages even published?

    My 26 year old daughter has never opened the Yellow Pages.
    Not once.
    we have an opt-out option here in Denver and I no longer have to recycle the YP.

     

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  3.  
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    Indy, Oct 18th, 2012 @ 2:52pm

    ALternatives...

    So charge the phone book companies with littering.

     

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  4.  
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    sehlat (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 2:52pm

    The big problem with paper phone books is the paper is too stiff to use in the bathroom.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 18th, 2012 @ 2:53pm

    I miss them

    Honestly, I really miss them.

    What else can you tear in half for free as a party trick?

     

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  6.  
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    out_of_the_blue, Oct 18th, 2012 @ 2:55pm

    It's, "opt-out of phone book deliveries", Mike!

    Placing a large book that I don't want -- even if it's by my mailbox -- is NOT free speech, it's littering!

    YET AGAIN, the First Amendment is perverted into upholding commercial "speech" -- in this instance, the right of those interests to inflict actual nuisance and harm on the public by placing a physical item: it isn't ordinarily allowed to put stuff on the property of others, so it IS an actual harm. It's the wrong application of First Amendment, besides continuing the insanity of corporations having more rights than "natural" persons.

    And be damn glad, people, that the USPS has means to keep them and countless others from putting stuff physically in your mailbox. Bad enough the USPS stuffs it with bulk-mail crap.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 18th, 2012 @ 3:02pm

    this ruling will do little good for these publishers in the log run.


    Is someone a little mad that summer vacation is over?

     

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  8.  
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    Michael, Oct 18th, 2012 @ 3:08pm

    Mandate Return to Sender (paid by sender)

    There should be the option to refuse delivery, including the mandate that said material must be packaged in a container which can be deposited in to a common carrier of the producer's choice for free of charge return to the sender. (Even for copies otherwise delivered by third parties.)

    Opening said package would invalidate the offer, but leaving opened packages would be defined as littering.

     

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  9.  
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    econoline (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 3:11pm

    up next graffiti as protected speech

    If littering hundreds of sheets of paper on my private property that I then have to dispose of is protected speech then shouldn't spray painting a message on the side of my house be as well. In fact shouldn't I be required to allow companies to paint a billboard on the side of my house as long as they also include a map of the area around their business? This is asinine, they aren't being prevented from printing or distributing their "product" only from dumping it on people's property against their will. Before I got on a do not distribute list I was receiving nearly a foot tall stack of 10-12 different yellow pages per year. I hope the ordinance will be rewritten more narrowly and rather than creating a list simply ban the dumping of paper on private property entirely.

     

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  10.  
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    Aliasundercover, Oct 18th, 2012 @ 3:38pm

    Littering

    Good bet a content neutral law which limits the quantity of stuff dropped off at people's homes unasked for would survive a First Amendment challenge. It would have to key on size or weight but not message. Of course nothing else comes close in size to yellow pages so it would be easy to make the law effectively block those big bricks but not pages announcing some new take out joint or advocating for a politician.

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 18th, 2012 @ 3:48pm

    I think the judge made a good call here. Precedent for laws being enacted to prevent companies from distributing information for free would doubtless be abused by idiots to make anti-internet laws or somesuch.

    That said, I also agree with everyone here that's said the people who distribute the stupid books should be fined for littering. I say one book, one fine. If they're determined to fill up America's landfills, they may as well cover the costs involved.

     

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  12.  
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    Mark Gisleson (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 3:51pm

    Outrageous

    The right of corporations to litter our doorsteps shall not be abridged.

    Corporate litterers now have more rights than human beings engaged in political protest.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 18th, 2012 @ 4:05pm

    You have to opt out of spam and out of adult filtering,
    when rational people would wish to have to opt in to spam and in to filtering if they want them.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 4:08pm

    Re: ALternatives...

    I don't think littering is appropriate. However, when I used to get these things, they always came onto my property to drop them off.

    I think that might be called trespassing.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Vic B (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 4:11pm

    Re: It's, "opt-out of phone book deliveries", Mike!

    "And be damn glad, people, that the USPS has means to keep them and countless others from putting stuff physically in your mailbox. Bad enough the USPS stuffs it with bulk-mail crap."

    Right...next thing will be "let's give them a medal for their hard work"?!? USPS is very happy to see all that junk mail in our mailboxes. It's money in their coffers and continued overpaid jobs to undereducated staff.

     

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  16.  
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    Karl (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 5:24pm

    The ruling is a good one

    Did anyone actually read the ordinance? Yellow pages required a separate license, and one that was NOT required if you handed out phone books with only white pages in them. Certain other directories were also not affected; in fact, yellow pages were pretty obviously singled out.

    I think this pretty clearly raises some free speech issues, and I think the ruling is dead on.

    If it were simply a matter of an opt-out system, there really wouldn't be a problem, IMO. "Do Not Call" registries have survived First Amendment scrutiny, and I can't imagine a simple opt-out system wouldn't survive as well.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 18th, 2012 @ 7:38pm

    Re: Re: ALternatives...

    soliciting? Loitering?

     

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  18.  
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    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 8:00pm

    IIRC YP are harder to recycle than normal paper.
    Wouldn't the better answer have been to have offered a citywide collection day and sending the bill to YP for distributing unwanted materials?

     

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  19.  
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    Bergman (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 8:53pm

    Given that while commercial expression is protected to a lesser degree than personal expression, if dumping a large heavy book on someone's property against their explicit orders is not littering, then it would likewise not be littering for that person to do the same right back to the phone book company.

    Nor would it be littering for a large number of individuals to do it collectively.

    I wonder, would it be possible to build a sufficiently large bulwark of books around the offices of the phone book company, to prevent them from entering or leaving said offices, even through a second floor window?

     

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  20.  
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    MikeVx (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 9:14pm

    Makes me wish I still lived in a house with a fireplace...

    Then I could get some use out of all this rubbish that ends up on my doorstep or in my mailbox. about 98% of what I get in the mail, or on the porch, never gets into the house, I just drop it in the yellow bin and haul the bin to the curb when full.

     

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  21.  
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    The Groove Tiger (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 9:47pm

    Re: Re: Re: ALternatives...

    Contempt of courtYard.

     

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  22.  
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    The Groove Tiger (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 9:49pm

    Re: It's, "opt-out of phone book deliveries", Mike!

    I can totally see ootb arguing the exact opposite if Mike had come in favor of banning the phone books.

    "YET AGAIN, Mike ignores the constitution to favor his paymasters in Big Phone!"

     

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  23.  
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    The Groove Tiger (profile), Oct 18th, 2012 @ 9:51pm

    Re: Re: It's, "opt-out of phone book deliveries", Mike!

    Sorry, I meant Zachary. OOTB's posts are giving me brain cancer.

     

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  24.  
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    k, Oct 18th, 2012 @ 10:19pm

    They may be "talking" but I'm not listening.

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 19th, 2012 @ 1:04am

    Next thing you know, they'll outlaw buggy whips.

     

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  26.  
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    Ninja (profile), Oct 19th, 2012 @ 4:47am

    Re:

    The last one I ever received still does an excellent job of keeping my monitor higher so it's aligned to my eyes. When it decomposes in a few hundred years I'll have to buy a wooden support or something. Can't you think of people like me? I think we should place a levy on the Intertubes to pay for my Yellow Pages!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 19th, 2012 @ 7:37am

    *obtains patent for yellow pages ON THE INTERNET!*

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
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    Ralph-J (profile), Oct 19th, 2012 @ 12:45pm

    Free speech does not mean that we all have to listen

    In discussions around free speech and censorship you often hear that free speech does not include the right to be listened to.

    Someone exercising their free speech rights does not have the right to airtime on their desired radio/TV shows, to text placements in the publication of their choice, to a hall full of listening people.

    Applying this principle here would seem to suggest that they should be allowed to produce as many yellow pages as they want, but may face lawful restrictions in distributing them door-to-door, and this wouldn't hurt their freedom of speech.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    icon
    Ralph-J (profile), Oct 19th, 2012 @ 12:47pm

    Free speech does not mean that we all have to listen

    In discussions around free speech and censorship you often hear that free speech does not include the right to be listened to.

    Someone exercising their free speech rights does not have the right to airtime on their desired radio/TV shows, to text placements in the publication of their choice, to a hall full of listening people.

    Applying this principle here would seem to suggest that they should be allowed to produce as many yellow pages as they want, but may face lawful restrictions in distributing them door-to-door, and this wouldn't hurt their freedom of speech.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
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    Tech42 (profile), Oct 19th, 2012 @ 2:46pm

    Does this mean my monitor risers will continue to be delivered?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 19th, 2012 @ 11:14pm

    Re: Mandate Return to Sender (paid by sender)

    There should be the option to refuse delivery
    You can obtain a prohibitory order against a sender, which will make it a federal crime for them to mail you.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 22nd, 2012 @ 3:54pm

    Re:

    And inky.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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