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.


  1. Just
    organize a MeetUp group in your neighborhood, collect all unwanted
    phonebooks and threaten to (or actually do) dump them off at the source.

    Problem solved.


    1. Better yet, just dump your old appliances at their corporate headquarters with your own free speech protected message written on the side of it. Let them pay to dispose of my old dishwasher they way they force me to dispose of their phone book.


      1. GENIUS.

        Lay it on its side and write on it,


  2. Couldn’t we just fine the phone book companies for littering?


  3. Off topic / FYI: I had to manually change the text colour on your page in order to read it comfortably.


    1. Why do sites do this? What is the purpose of using light-gray type?


  4. This is a natural result of capitalism. Wealth flows to the top, and where that wealth is not diverted by taxation to the public good, that wealth amasses to the extent where the elite can buy what ever they want. The people of Seattle voted for a monorail, and the elite killed it. Paul Allen buys up South Lake Union, and gets his own trolly to make the area more valuable. When the people of Seattle said “No” to a new football stadium, Paul Allen used his wealth to buy a state-wide election he knew would pass, The wealthy get what they want, while we have to fight just to keep a sack-lunch program for the homeless going.


  5. Reasonable regulation could require a distributor of unsolicited goods to obtain written permission [from the owner] in order to go onto real estate owned. Otherwise it is trespassing. It could require licensing of the distributors and impose a tax for collecting unclaimed property. Title to the books stays with the distributor until it is accepted by the entity being distributed to. Of course outing the corporate owners of the distributor would be good also.


  6. I’m dumping my unwanted Yellow Pages at the front door of Perkins Cole, the lawyers representing the directory publishers.

    Their Seattle office address is:
    1201 Third Avenue
    Suite 4900
    Seattle, Washington
    PHONE: 206.359.8000

    Here’s the Perkins Cole press release gloating about their victory:

    http://tinyurl.com/b6tdda9 I used our (now illegal) City of Seattle opt-out list to refuse delivery of any directories. If I receive any, I’m delivering them to the PerkinsCole offices.


  7. If several people got together, recruited their friends and divided up the book, they could send an email to every advertiser in the book with a picture of the directory in the recycling bin. Add the message “Please don’t waste your money sending me stuff for my recycling bin.”

    Enough of that would kill the business model.


  8. To defeat them within the confines of market-capitalism, organise boycotts of the companies whose paid advertisements fund them. It’s sad that democracy isn’t enough.


  9. Laughable. The First Amendment has always protected “corporate personhood.” It’s about freedom of the press and religion. That includes newspapers and religious organizations, both of which are typically incorporated. An note that almost all newspapers and broadcasters in this country are corporate and commercial.

    All the recent US Supreme Court decision ruled is that in the political arena there can’t be one set of rules for some incorporated bodies, say unions, and another for other for other incorporated bodies, say GM or the Sierra Club.

    The real losers in the former state of affairs weren’t giant commercial corporations, who typical don’t want to upset either political party and any major candidate, but no-profit organizations, which were excluded from the special campaign-spending benefits accorded unions.

    Besides, the effect of this money for advertising is vastly overrated. If you look at the political donations to the 2014, the top 13 donors gave to Democrats. You’re at #14 before you find a donor who tilted Republican. The Democrats really are the party of the rich. By the way, the Koch brothers came in way down the list at #24.

    And yet what happened in those 2014 elections? Despite all that money from rich liberals, the Democrats suffered the worst political stomping since the 1920s, almost a century ago.

    In fact, I’m tempted to suggest that it was because of those liberal Democrats that the Democrats did so badly. People don’t like the direction the billionaire’s candidate, the less-than-stellar Obama, is taking the country, either with Obamacare or in his foreign policies.


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