Thud! Phone books still have 1st Amendment protection

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu looks through a pile of phone books in the back of a pickup truck during a news conference in San Francisco last year. Chiu, a sponsor of the city’s phone-book law, said Monday's ruling “protects giant corporate polluters that litter our city doorsteps with millions of unwanted Yellow Page books.”
(Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

Phone books, those hefty tomes that invite consumers to “let your fingers do the walking” may not be welcomed when they thud on consumers’ doorsteps, but they are protected by the 1st Amendment.

Both San Francisco and Seattle have passed ordinances to reduce the distribution of phone books on the grounds they create litter, add to landfills and annoy increasingly wired consumers.

But a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Monday that phone books, with their yellow pages, white pages, maps and government directories, have the same free speech protection as newspapers.

“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 1st Amendment,” wrote Judge Richard R. Clifton for the court.


The court acknowledged that the once omnipresent directories may be a nuisance for consumers who prefer to do their “walking” on the Internet.

“The ‘yellow pages’ telephone directory was once a ubiquitous part of American life, found in virtually every household and office…,” wrote Clifton, an appointee of former President George W. Bush. “But times have changed, and today phone books, like land-line telephones themselves, are not so universally accepted.”

Spokespersons for San Francisco and Seattle said they are still reviewing the ruling. But a trade association that represents phone book publishers said the court decision should end city attempts to regulate them.

“Not everybody Googles,” said Neg Norton, president of the Local Search Assn., the trade organization representing the publishers. “People still keep their yellow pages in a handy place. Most people keep them in a kitchen drawer.”

Norton said surveys have found that two-thirds of adults still use the yellow pages in emergencies to locate plumbers, exterminators and other businesses. “It is low-tech, but it is still very effective,” he said.

Consumers who do not want the books can opt out of deliveries by signing up at an Internet site,

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, sponsor of the city’s law, said the ruling “protects giant corporate polluters that litter our city doorsteps with millions of unwanted Yellow Page books.”

San Francisco’s law, passed in 2011, affects only the “Yellow Pages,” bars publishers from bundling them with the “White Pages” and prevents distribution without residents’ permission. The law has not been enforced pending the 9th Circuit review of the Seattle law.

The Seattle law required publishers to obtain permits and pay fees.