The city of Seattle is finalizing an agreement to pay $500,000 to settle its losing fight against the publishers of the yellow pages phone books, according to two sources familiar with the lawsuit.
The city has decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court an October ruling by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a city ordinance violated the companies’ free speech rights. The panel ruled unconstitutional a city law that created an opt-out registry for unwanted phone books and charged the publishers a disposal fee for recycling costs.
The court rejected Seattle’s argument that the yellow pages are commercial speech and not subject to First Amendment protections.
The City Council voted in 2010 to crack down on unwanted delivery of the phone books. In addition to the opt-out registry, the city charged the companies that distribute the phone books $100 each, plus a per-book charge and a disposal fee for unwanted directories that ended up at the recycling center.
Local Search Association, an industry group representing three yellow pages publishers, sued, arguing that the city unconstitutionally restricted its right to publish its books. A federal district court judge in Seattle sided with the city, saying government had a legitimate interest in wanting to reduce waste and prevent unwanted books from being deposited on private property.
But a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, generally a left-leaning court, sided with the yellow-pages publishers, ruling that they are protected, like other publications, by the First Amendment.
The ordinance was championed by Councilmember Mike O’Brien, a former Sierra Club activist who sought to reduce the city’s costs to recycle unwanted phone books.
In a statement this afternoon, O’Brien said he couldn’t comment but confirmed that the City Attorney’s Office is in negotiations over a tentative settlement of the lawsuit “to address both settlement fees and the future of Seattle’s yellow pages opt-out system.”
It continued: “However, I believe Seattle’s residents have a right to say ‘no thanks’ to yellow pages deliveries. In the first two years of our opt-out system, one-quarter of businesses and residents in Seattle made the choice to opt out of receiving phonebooks. This powerful expression of Seattle consumers’ choices also led the industry to change how they operate in Seattle, such as scaling back some deliveries and streamlining multiple directories into one. All told, we have seen a two-thirds reduction in yellow pages directories delivered each year in Seattle — a savings of 1,000 tons of paper annually from pre-program levels of 1,490 tons.
“These figures indicate that the people of Seattle clearly want a choice when it comes to receiving yellow pages at their homes or places of business. Ensuring that Seattle’s residents and businesses continue to have their choices honored in the future will be key to our ongoing negotiations.”