Following Yellow Pages ruling for Seattle, San Francisco to halt similar program

Free speech? San Francisco was forced to reconsider its Yellow Pages ban after a federal court struck down a similar law in Seattle.

San Francisco’s law banning the delivery of Yellow Pages is being sent to the trash can after a federal court ruled that a similar law enacted in Seattle violated First Amendment protections.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu had authored local legislation that prohibited the delivery of the phonebooks to anyone who did not request them or who was not home to personally accept them.

But on Tuesday, Chiu was forced to announce that he was introducing new legislation to block his own law, which the board had approved in May 2011 amid strong opposition from the phonebook industry.

Seattle’s Yellow Pages ban, considered a weaker law than San Francisco’s, taxed the publishing industry to fund an opt-out program. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in San Francisco, struck down that law last week.  

“I strongly disagree with the 9th Circuit’s ruling, a misreading of the First Amendment to protect corporate polluters that litter our San Francisco doorsteps with 1.6 million unwanted Yellow Pages books every year,” Chiu said. “But in light of the decision and in consultation with our city attorney, I am introducing legislation today to suspend the implementation of our pilot program at least until future appellate proceedings determine that Seattle’s law is consistent with the First Amendment.”

Judge Richard R. Clifton wrote for the court, “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.”

Clifton also noted that Yellow Pages were “once a ubiquitous part of American life, found in virtually every household and office.

“But times have changed, and today phone books, like land-line telephones themselves, are not so universally accepted.”

San Francisco’s law was set to go into effect May 1 and sunset in three years, but a legal challenge held up implementation. The full board must vote to make the law ineffective, which it is expected to do in the coming weeks.  

Chiu said he is not done trying to reduce waste related to the Yellow Pages and is already “working with the city attorney to hopefully draft new legislation to find alternative approaches to achieving the same goal.”   

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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