Phone book restrictions take hit in court

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal appeals court decision striking down restrictions on the distribution of Yellow Pages in Seattle has imperiled San Francisco’s own phonebook ban.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that Seattle’s 2010 law violated the First Amendment. The law created a registry — paid for by fees levied on publishers of the directories — that allowed residents to opt out of receiving phone directories. The publishers were additionally required to advertise the availability of the opt-out registry on the directories’ front covers.

Neg Norton, president of the Local Search Association, which includes directory publishers, said the industry has created its own online opt-out directory at www.yellowpagesoptout.com. The number of directories delivered over the past 18 months has dropped by more than 3 million, he said.

“We’re trying to get phonebooks into the hands of people that want them,” he said. “This decision isn’t going to change any of that.”

Seattle estimated unwanted phonebooks generated 1,300 tons of waste a year that cost taxpayers nearly $200,000 to get rid of.

San Francisco’s law is more restrictive, making it even less likely to stand up in court. It prohibits the distribution of Yellow Pages to anyone who does not specifically opt in.

Supervisor David Chiu, who authored the law, told the San Francisco Chronicle the appeals court misread the First Amendment and protected “giant corporate polluters.”

He said he will evaluate potential changes to San Francisco’s law, but intends to continue pushing to cut down on phonebook waste.

In the Seattle case, a district court had upheld the law, saying the directories represented commercial speech and were therefore not entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment.

But the appeals court disagreed, siding with Yellow Page companies.

“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,” Judge Richard Clifton, one of three judges on the Ninth Circuit panel, wrote in his opinion.

San Francisco’s ordinance — passed in 2011 — created a three-year pilot program for the ban. The program was set to begin in May, but has been challenged in court.

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