Yellow Pages Argues Seattle Law Limiting Distribution “Unconstitutional”

by Chris Silver Smith

Yellow Pages Legal Conflict in SeattleAs you may be aware, Seattle passed an ordinance in October which required yellow pages print directory companies to pay for an annual license and to allow consumers to opt-out of receiving print yellow pages phonebooks from being delivered to their properties. The Yellow Pages Association filed a motion in federal court last week, seeking to have the ordinance canceled on the basis of unconstitutionality.

The YP industry claims that the print directories should be considered protected speech, and that their content is also primarily informational content, with a lower percentage of advertising content than magazines and newspapers.

I think that the YPA may technically be right, but are putting themselves in direct opposition of an influential demographic which are irritated by directory books getting dropped on their doorsteps, apartment buildings and in their places of business. The argument is somewhat facile — rather like me saying that I can write nearly whatever I wish and it’s protected as free speech — however, that doesn’t give me the right to spraypaint it upon the side of someone’s home. It’s the method of transmission of this free speech that’s being contested.

For many in Seattle, the ordinance doesn’t sound like an unduly heavy limitation for the YP companies. After all, only a minority of recipients are likely to opt-out of delivery, and the licensing fee is very small.

It’s true that opt-out has a much higher impact on these companies than what average consumers can conceive-of. Since they often use cheap labor and outside companies to provide the book delivery service, requiring the distributors to carefully check do-not-drop address lists would slow them down a whole lot and result in increased costs — and will likely be error-prone.

But, in the highly-ecologically-conscious Seattle market, pushing the question is going to come across to people as insensitive and insistently wasteful. Why insist upon delivering to those people who really do not want the books?!?

I know that longtime print phonebook veterans are sort of cheering this legal volley, but I’m not sure they will win the more important PR war involved. Why force something that some fairly influential people do not want down their throats?

I’m not all that convinced that they should even win this battle on purely legal grounds. If the “Do Not Call” list is an accepted limitation on freedom of speech, this print equivalent should be, too. Being allowed to print/say what you want, doesn’t mean that you should therefore be allowed to pour your printed materials on people’s property against their direct wishes, nor should you be allowed to stand on their property to speak it. Comparisons with newspapers and magazines seems a little weak to me, since there’s also rising resistance to those mediums as well, when they’re dropped without invitation/subscription.

I rather see the Seattle ordinance as a type of no-trespassing law, which is pretty uniformly accepted across the country.

Some of the clearer thinkers in the YP industry are acknowledging the societal and technological shifts that are happening which are resulting in consumer behavioral shifts, and instead of wasting energy in trying to resist the change, they’re looking ahead to plan for the transitions and evolve their companies towards being relevant to the marketplace. For instance, Yellow Book’s CEO, Joe Walsh, has stated in news interviews that in five years’ time the printed yellow pages phonebooks would no longer be in every market, and would be migrating away from the coastal regions in that timeframe (my paraphrasing). Seattle is most definitely one of those coastal regions.

With some top yellow pages executives stating that printed phonebooks might no longer make good business sense in those markets (due to users shifting over to using digital media for their business research information), it seems a waste of resources for them expend time arguing that they should be able to continue to do so, unfettered.

As I reported from a presentation by Isabelle Lascombe at last year’s BIA/Kelsey DMS conference, PagesJaunes made a very progressive move to switch over to opt-in delivery which resulted in some pretty stunning successes in terms of numbers of people who requested deliveries. If the U.S. directory companies did this and achieved similar successes, they would have a much more compelling story to tell to advertisers in terms of directories distributed and “references”/”impressions” of usage.

If yellow pages companies did move to opt-in, they would likely be able to turn it into a very positive promotional story, similar to the Coca-Cola move years ago to replace Coca-Cola Classic with New Coke. The previously-complacent consumers reacted strongly and vocally, demanding their Classic soft drink — for many consumers, print yellow pages could be just as compelling.

Instead, I’m afraid the Yellow Pages Association may be setting themselves up for a Pyrrhic victory in this conflict. They could win this legal wrangle while gaining further irritation from the Seattle community, internet/mobile consumers, and environmentally-conscious citizens.


Tags: , , , , ,

Spammy usernames will be disallowed from posting comments!

2 Responses to “Yellow Pages Argues Seattle Law Limiting Distribution “Unconstitutional””

  1. Mike Stewart says:

    Great analysis Chris.

    I too don’t see how this is an argument of free speech. It is a bold attempt to stay viable and the argument further makes the companies look like they don’t care for the wishes of the consumer. This is a corporate mistake. Trespassing may be the deciding factor in the future of YP and Newspapers.

  2. I agree with you that the legal grounds are pretty weak. My analogy is what is the difference between leaving a burger wrapper or a phone book on your front door step? They both have printing on them, but without my permission they are both trash. If one or two phone books is okay, what if I dumped an entire truckload of phone books in your driveway? (I am a Seattle resident by the way).

    I have considered organizing a “Phone Book Demolition Day,” a slight play off of “Disco Demolition Night” for a few years. Participants would send back thousands of unwanted phone books to the phone companies all on the same day. I wonder how they would feel if a large chunk of their unwanted product were returned all on the same day? A few phone books add up to a significant volume pretty quickly. It might be a fun event for a few Local SEOs and Inbound Marketers to try and organize. I have nothing against phone books, just with trash getting dumped on my front steps without my permission.