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Phone Book Free Speech Ruling Could Cost Seattle $500,000

By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 22, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled in October that phone books may be obsolescent, but they're still entitled to First Amendment protection.

That decision may end up costing Seattle $500,000, according to The Seattle Times. Thursday, the paper reported that the city has reached a tentative agreement to pay the six-figure settlement after losing its fight against the phone book publishers, according to two unnamed sources.

In 2010, Seattle passed an ordinance requiring yellow-pages publishers to advertise an opt-out registry on the front covers of their directories. The registry jeopardized the future of phone books, and the publishers were forced to pay a fee for each book distributed to cover the cost of the registry, according to The Wall Street Journal. The publishers sued, arguing that the ordinance unconstitutionally infringed upon their free speech rights.

The district court rejected the plaintiffs' challenge and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, reasoning that the directories represented "commercial speech," which benefits from less protection under the First Amendment. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, holding that directories qualify for full protection under the First Amendment strict scrutiny.

The panel noted, "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."

Seattle decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court.

While the city's original waste-reducing plan was unconstitutional, it seems that the concept was popular. Since the city adopted the registry, more than 75,000 residents and businesses have opted out of receiving up to 6 phone books, The Seattle Times reports.

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