Share story

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against Seattle’s crack-down on yellow pages directories. The phone books are protected under the First Amendment, the court said, so the city can’t require them to get a permit or offer an opt-out system for residents who don’t want a commercial phone directory delivered to their door.

The Seattle City Council voted two years ago to create an opt-out registry for Seattleites who want to avoid unwanted yellow pages. To pay for the program, the city planned to charge yellow pages distributors $100 a year for a license, plus a disposal fee. Council Member Mike O’Brien sponsored the rules and gained publicity by offering to take any unwanted phone books his constituents wanted to drop off. As the books piled up in his office, he asked them, eventually, to stop dropping them off.

Environmentalists rallied around the legislation. On the council, only Jean Godden opposed the registry, which she said raised concerns about free speech.

Four phone book publishers including Dex Media West sued the city. A lower court ruled for the city, saying yellow pages are commercial. But the Appeals Court judges wrote:

We conclude that the yellow pages directories qualify for full protection under the First Amendment. Although portions of the directories are obviously commercial in nature, the books contain more than that, and we conclude that the directories are entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment. As a result, when we evaluate the ordinance under strict scrutiny, it does not survive.