Update 2: There is now a followup: Why you should care about Seattle’s phonebook debacle?

Update: This post did not include an estimate for the city’s own legal fees. The city retained Summit Law Group as outside counsel on the case which has lasted nearly 18 months and included written and oral arguments to the Federal Court of Appeals. City officials have no comment at this time on the cost of the city’s legal fees.

The Seattle Times is reporting that the City of Seattle will spend $500,000 to settle a lawsuit it lost with phonebook companies over its sensible opt-out program for residents.

Beginning in May 2011, Seattle began allowing residents to opt out of unwanted phonebook deliveries. The program was so popular, the city reports that more than 2 million pounds of paper are saved annually as a result. The phonebook companies sued the city and lost, but won on appeal. The city has chosen not to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The phonebook companies alleged in their complaint that the phonebook ordinance, “denies [their] rights guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” (free speech and due process). If not for the legal concept of “corporate personhood“, the phonebook companies wouldn’t be able to sue Seattle to assert Constitutional rights originally written only for people.

The rules of our legal system are now rigged to favor corporations. Rather than ask the question, “are the phonebook companies people?” and “do they have the right to free speech?” the courts have focused largely on whether the content in the phonebooks (advertisements and phone listings) represent free speech which can’t be regulated or commercial speech, which can be.

The phonebook lawsuit is ridiculous on its merits: The companies claim, “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits government from … enforcing the desire of citizens to avoid communications [and] from prying into citizens’ preferences regarding communications they seek to avoid.

These kinds of cases put the city council in a defensive posture concerned that its actions could provoke other expensive lawsuits. What kind of democracy do we have when the city council is afraid to regulate local nuisances and environmental harms?

Over the past few years, we’ve seen corporations take several approaches to influence what happens in Seattle:

The phonebook lawsuit is just one more way corporations leverage “corporate personhood” and free speech “rights” to sue the city or spend money on elections to manipulate the law in their favor.

Posted by Jeff Reifman

Jeff is a technology consultant based in the Pacific Northwest. Try scheduling a meeting with his new startup Meeting Planner (https://meetingplanner.io), simpler, faster scheduling for work or play and read his series about building it). Follow @reifman on Twitter.