Good News For Local Business: Phone Books Are Protected Free Speech

Paying the bill for outside counsel pushes the total cost for the city’s Yellow Pages lawsuit to more than $780,000.

By Lynda V. Mapes

Seattle Times staff reporter

The city’s quest to deflect unwanted Yellow Pages phone books was more expensive than first noted, with the bill to pay outside counsel pushing the expense to $781,503.

The city paid $517,000 this week to settle its losing fight against publishers of Yellow Pages phone books. But the city also has paid $264,503 for outside legal counsel to defend the city ordinance first in U.S. District Court, where the city won; in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the city lost; and in asking for a rehearing by a Court of Appeals review panel, which the city lost.

The Summit Law Group in Seattle actually was a bargain, said Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, compared with about $400,000 the city also had to pay in the settlement agreement for the industry’s legal fees. It is a standard penalty for the losing party to pay the legal fees and court costs on both sides of a court fight.

The other roughly $117,000 went to reimburse the Yellow Pages publishers for the fees they paid under the ordinance.

The City Attorney’s Office has no choice but to defend a city ordinance if it is challenged in court, Mills said. The legal principles involved in this case, First Amendment law in the area of commercial speech, were specialized enough to require outside counsel, Mills said.

The city has decided not to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, Mills said. No more legal fees or other costs will be forthcoming in the matter, which is closed by the settlement agreement, under which the city agreed to repeal the underlying ordinance behind the suit.

The controversy started in 2010, when the City Council passed a law to crack down on unwanted delivery of phone books.

In addition to creating an opt-out registry, the city charged the companies that distribute the phone books $100 each for a business license, plus a per-book charge for every Yellow Pages phone book delivered, and fines of as much as $125 for deliveries to businesses that had opted out.

Local Search Association, an industry group representing three Yellow Pages publishers, sued, arguing the city unconstitutionally restricted its right to publish.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who had championed the measure, said it was well-received by residents.

“We are in negotiations with the Yellow Pages industry to ensure that Seattle’s waste-reduction gains are preserved,” he said in a statement.

Some city residents who back the law said the problem is treating corporations as if they had the same constitutional rights as people.

“Phone books are a joke,” said Jeff Reifman, a Seattle blogger. “As long as courts keep giving these constitutional rights to corporations, we don’t have control over our communities and we can’t legislate to protect the environment.”

In a statement emailed Friday night, Neg Norton of Local Search said publishers of the Yellow Pages know it makes no sense to deliver an unwanted directory.

Norton suggests consumers use the industry’s consumer-choice program, at, to control delivery of Yellow Pages.

Norton said the publishers will honor opt-out requests previously submitted to the city’s former opt-out website.

Material from Seattle Times archives was used in this report.

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