The Yellow Pages industry won a big victory yesterday when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Seattle’s tough opt-out ordinance in a unanimous decision. The court based its decision on the finding that print directories offer more than just advertising and are entitled to the same protection as other media like newspapers.
Local Search Association President Neg Norton said this about the ruling: “The Court’s ruling is good news for residents who find value in the free and easy access to community information, emergency information, and local business listings that print Yellow Pages offer. It is also a win for local businesses that depend on Yellow Pages advertising to drive new customers into their doors.”
Dex One CEO Alfred Mockett added this statement: “Today’s court decision is a victory for free speech and the rights of local business owners in the city of Seattle. We have contended from the outset this action by the City Council was a burden on local businesses and a violation of our First Amendment rights. We have always believed the ordinance was unnecessary and are pleased the Ninth Circuit has reached a decision that allows Dex One to help local businesses and consumers connect without unnecessary regulation.”
According to the Seattle Times, the city may appeal the decision. However, it sourced that statement to the ordinance’s champion, councilman Mike O’Brien, who questioned the ruling’s premise. Whether the city itself has the stomach for more litigation remains to be seen.
“I think comparing the yellow pages to The New York Times challenges most of our perception of what the Yellow Pages really are,” O’Brien told the newspaper. “I think the city clearly has a compelling government and public interest in regulating how the Yellow Pages are distributed.”
If the ruling stands, it is likely to discourage other municipalities that may have been waiting to see if the Seattle ordinance and an even more strict opt-in ordinance stood up to litigation. In San Francisco, where the ordinance limits phone book distribution only to those who actively request a printed book, both sides are awaiting a district court decision on a lawsuit brought by publishers and the Local Search Association.
The Seattle decision has given the industry confidence that things will go their way in an Francisco as well.
“In light of this decision, we are optimistic the District Court in San Francisco, also in the Ninth Circuit, will quickly overturn that City’s even more restrictive ordinance,” Norton said.
The opt-out ordinance did have some public support in Seattle, with 79,000 residents reportedly opting out of phone book delivery since the ordinance was passed.
The Yellow Pages industry would argue that those residents can always opt-out via the industry’s opt-out website. The Seattle ordinance went further than simply requiring opt-out. It also required a license to distribute phone books and fees for processing phone books that end up in city recycling bins, among other restrictions.