Corporations are people, so the city of Seattle can't have an opt-out policy for spammy phonebooks no one wants

Jeff sez,

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.

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 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.'

Corporate Personhood to Cost Seattle $500,000 to Settle Phone Book Lawsuit (Thanks, Jeff!)

(Image: Seattle Phone Book Spam, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from edkohler's photostream)


  1. What the ridiculous fuck?
    Sorry, I simply can’t come up with a more coherent line of questioning for this.

    1. We here at PhoneBook, inc. appreciate your concern of what the ridiculous fuck.  Please contact our complaint department at our P.O. Box listed on our website once a month.

      We value you as our customer and will continue to serve you the best PhoneBooks.  We would also like to thank you for your order of 200 new PhoneBooks.  If this order was made in error, please contact our re-order department at our P.O. Box listed on our website once a month.

      1. These books aren’t coming from the phone company. They come from several for-profit companies that sell advertising space in these books.

        I’m going to be PRETTY SAD if I start seeing these damn things again, I was delighted to be able to opt out of them for a few years.

        1. Yeah, we have that shit, too.  Verizon puts out a phone book, but there’s also something called the Desert Pages, which is a five-pound lump of pulp filled with ads and completely unusable as a phone directory.

    1. Or your local politician. In the Canadas we’re allowed to send mail without postage, to the government. So it’s a valid protest technique to gather up all your junk mail and phone books and mail it to whichever government office you feel would get the best results.

      1. They don’t give a fuck who gets them, they count everything that’s gone out on the truck as “reached a customer”, or so they tell the advertisers.

    2. This should be the acceptable reaction to unwanted phone books, flyers, newspapers etc. return en masse to the producer.

  2. I can still shoot them when they cross my property line to drop them off, right? After all, 2nd amendment trumps 1st.

  3. Why is it legal for these assholes to dump trash in my front yard?

    I would really push for the city to take this to the Supreme Court. It would be fantastic for the phone company to lose at that level.
    Barring that, find the company responsible (whoever the fuck still prints phone books) and burn their building to the ground using the books as kindling.

    1.  Yep, seems like illegal dumping to me. They are placing garbage where it doesn’t belong. When the phone books were dumped in a pile at the front door of my apartment building a few years ago, I called the city to report illegal dumping, but the rep on the phone laughed at me.

    2. A widespread and coordinated campaign to complain about this littering might force the city’s hand, or might result in such bad PR for the litterers that they had to moderate their position.

  4. Hey city: please fine the phone companies an absurd amount for littering by leaving all these unwanted phone books about. “People” have to abide by laws, correct?

  5. In the 21st century almost nobody wants or needs this garbage on their front door. What happened to our right not to be bombarded with garbage?

    1. They’re not postal carriers, so why is this not littering?  Littering usually carries a fine for each infraction, and if Seattle is serious, they’ll use ordinances already on the books to nip this in the bud.

      And they are so neatly packaged in plastic.  They should be shredded, put BACK in their plastic, then deposited at the phonebook company. But make sure the bags are open a little and fill with rainwater. That way the message back to them gets delivered. 

    2. If the Constitution doesn’t give you a “right not to be bombarded with garbage” in exactly those words, you don’t have one.

      — Antonin Scalia

  6. As a Seattle resident, I’m seriously annoyed by this.  And they always manage to drop that shit on our porch when we’re not home so we can’t make them take it back.  It always goes right into the recycle bin, because I have the internet, and have no need for an outdated concept.

    1. I like the idea of you running outside and going Leland Orser on them.

      “Get that away from me! Get that away from me! Get that away from me! Get that away from me! Get that away from me! Get that away from me!”

  7. In the past 10 years, there is only one thing I have _ever_ used a phone book for.  I’ve used it to call my ISP when I cannot connect to the internet.

    They have not changed their phone number in 10 years, so I’m quite happy to use my 10-year-old phone book in order to look up their number.

    If I wasn’t such a luddite that I refused to have a cell phone, I would program their number in there, and recycle my one and only phone book as well.

    1. Or just write down the number on a scrap of paper, put it in your wallet, and recycle the phone book just the same. 

  8. Could somebody take out a restraining order on a corporation, then?  I’d think that would prevent the phone book companies from being able to deliver the books.

      1. Seems like an ideal opportunity to use all those “return postage paid” envelopes sent to me by other snail mail spammers, largely Citibank and Comcast… Tape return envelope with return postage seal to the front, drop in USPS mailbox, get a few hundred other locals to do the same via Facebook or, wait for the howls from the megacorps??

  9. I thought US free speech was about not having the government interfere with what you wanted to say in your own forum. Not about being able to force people to listen to you on their own property despite the fact that they’ve made their wish not to, quite clear. *shrugs* Guess I miss understood, if that’s the case… well, the constitution has dropped a few pegs my estimation.

  10. Seems to me a case like this could have a lot of unwanted consequences   I mean this would prevent there being any regulation corporate communication with potential customers.  Not sure what legislation exists in the US but off the top of my head, Do Not Call Lists, anti-spam legislation, advertising regulations etc could all be at risk. 

    1. My thoughts exactly. This needs to go to the Supreme Court. I think it will when the phones start ringing again. As for combatting it, remove the source of income, the books will vanish – call each advertiser and say ‘I saw your ad in the stupid phonebook. That’s the only reason I’m calling. Goodbye.’

  11. Easy solution: tax the shit out of these companies. Say, add a 80% tax on REVENUES (not profits) from ANY ACTIVITY related to door-to-door distribution of paper  (or paper-like) material of dimensions between 3x3cm and 100x100cm with more than 20 pages, with special, well-guarded exemptions for newspapers.

    1.  Something like this is what I’d like to see done in Chicago, charge for permits etc. If we have to get permits to protest, than surely these shitheads that litter our porches with unwanted phone books, restaurant menus, circulars, roofer ads etc. etc. can pay some good fees to offset the mess they make. Seriously, this stuff is the number one source of litter on my block and it’s “for profit”. It always blows away (etc. etc.) before residents can deal with it. Some residents don’t care, some houses are vacant and so on. Just a scourge.

  12. As annoying as the phonebook issue is, we’re better off with absurdly strong and overbroad speech protections. If anyone can say anything in any medium (or very nearly), that makes it much harder for the government to squelch speech. If it means I have to recycle a phone book, well, so be it. The more exceptions we make in the name of convenience and expediency, the faster our rights erode. (Anyone remember the 4th Amendment?)

    1. “we’re better off with absurdly strong and overbroad speech protections”

      We don’t have overstong and overbroad speech protections. That’s the problem. Corporations have greater protections than the consumer does.

    2. I’m really trying to come up with a plausible slippery-slope argument that starts with, “A corporation is not allowed to dump trash on my front porch without my permission” and ends up with “jackbooted thugs,” but it’s really not happening over here.

      1. Try leaving the “trash” in your driveway for a few weeks. The answer will come in the mail from the code enforcement department.

    3. As annoying as the phonebook issue is, we’re better off with absurdly strong and overbroad speech protections.

      There’s no evidence of that. It’s laughable to call somebody dumping a book full of for-profit advertisements “speech”. If this was a political group passing out fliers with ideas etc. you may have a stronger argument. This is garbage, and its being put on our property.

  13. this makes zero sense to me, in several ways. Corporations as people, or people as people the state can still make certain laws regarding speech. I don’t have to accept every pamphlet offered me on the streets, even if it’s the personal diatribe of an individual instead of a corporation. Commerical speech, from an individual or corporation, has also been subject to more laws. anti-obscentity on TV, billboard regulation, etc…

    Also why would a company want the expense of printing books that aren’t even looked at? I understand they have advertising in them, but if they have no opt out method but are claiming to their advertisers that every book distributed is a set of eyes that sees their ads then they are making a fradulent claim. If instead they had an opt-out they could make a better claim that peple will actually see the ad.

    don’t see how the phonebooks are different from billboards as far as this goes.

    1. I worked for a phone book company for quite a few years. They’re older businesses which are, depending on the specific company, gradually moving toward digital adoption. They still make quite a bit of money on the production of phone books, however — almost all their cash comes from the selling of advertisements to local businesses. (The white pages are records which they acquire from actual phone companies; yellow pages are where the revenue comes from, and what pays for the book printing itself.)

      What I saw most during my stint was that smaller business owners were often borderline internet-illiterate, and so they still saw the phone book advertisements as being of value. When my company started to bundle customizable webpages or PPC/SEO products into their print package — at no additional cost during the early days, mind — loads of advertisers flipped their wigs. They didn’t understand the internet, they did not want it in their lives, and oftentimes they actually wanted to opt out of digital-anything altogether. (In a weird spate of irony, I guess?) Some got it, of course, but for the most part you’re looking at places who were still sure in their hearts that phonebooks were relevant to the below-75 crowd. So the phonebooks are ultimately shrinking, but at way less a rate than I would have anticipated.

      As for consumer opt-out, well. I think that’s entirely dependent on the individual company. The place I was at had an online form — somewhat buried on the site, but that was more because the site was five years out of date than anything — and if you were willing to do a little legwork, you could send an e-mail or call customer service. The request would get shunted to a distribution department, and life went on. *That* said, Jesus Horatio Christ: there are a lot of shitty phonebook companies out there, so by no means would I expect most places to bother with the ‘courtesy’.

  14. 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.’

    So restraining orders forbidding stalkers and abusive exes from contacting their victims must be First Amendment violations too.

  15. This issue would be a non-starter if ‘people’ learned to spend their advertising dollars more wisely.  

  16. there was a protest here (Montreal) a while back, where phone books were collected and returned to the corporate office of the phonebook company (see ). The security officers came out to pick up the books and throw them in the dumpster, while a spokesperson complained that the protesters were creating a “fire hazard”…

    But of course, dumping slightly smaller piles in front of apartment buildings is a-ok, right?

  17. The way this should work is if these things turn up on the street, the company that’s sending them out unsolicited should get stung for illegal dumping. 
    Should be the same deal (if it isn’t already) for the arseholes who stick their goddamn flyers under windscreen wipers. Generally I never litter, but that crap gets thrown on the floor without getting looked at.

    I remember opting out of direct mail via Royal Mail a few years ago (on top of the Mail Preference Service), and they gave me all sorts of dire warnings that I might miss out on important stuff. Yeah, whatever. Just stop with the junk mail.

    I don’t remember looking at a phone book in 20 years. I do remember being excited as a kid when our name appeared on the top of the index bit of the page as well as in the list because we were at the top or bottom of a page. I also liked being the only people in the book with our surname.

    1. I have a very useful sorting algorithm (only applicable in the US). When I get my mail, if an envelope says “PRESORT STANDARD” or a similar abbreviation in the upper-right corner, it goes into the recycle bin, since by definition it cannot contain anything addressed to me personally, such an an account statement.

      This has served me well over the years.

  18. I didn’t think that a person’s free speech trumped another person’s right to not hear that speech on their private property.  I can stand on the street and say whatever I want but I can’t walk into your house and say it.

    Why then can they deliver their “free speech” into a private residence when the owner has explicitly stated that they do not want to hear it?

    1. Apparently the Federal government finds forcing consumers to listen to corporate free speech is more important than all else.

  19. Read the ruling. Then think how to craft a content-based restriction on what people can publish that won’t come back to bite you when the wrong people end up being elected to the positions of determining what combination of content makes a publication ban-able.
    “To be sure, the Yellow Pages Companies are in the business of selling advertisements and contracted to distribute the noncommercial speech to make their advertising space more desirable due to greater directory use. But it is important to keep in mind that the First Amendment protections available to newspapers and similar media do not apply only
    to those institutions of the type who “have played an historic role in our democracy.” To assume that every protected newspaper, magazine, television show, or tabloid’s “noncommercial” content precedes and takes priority over the publishing parent company’s desire to sell advertising is at odds with reality and the evidence in the record.

    Ultimately, we do not see a principled reason to treat telephone directories differently from newspapers, magazines, television programs, radio shows, and similar media that does not turn on an evaluation of their contents. A profit motive and the inclusion or creation of noncommercial content in order to reach a broader audience and attract more advertising is present across all of them. We conclude, therefore, that the yellow pages directories are entitled to full First Amendment protection.”

    1. “Ultimately, we do not see a principled reason to treat telephone directories differently from newspapers”

      Yes we can, newspapers are requested and purchased.

    2. Nobody, but nobody, in their wildest fevered imagination is suggesting that the yellow pages companies in question be enjoined from publishing their books. The entire question is whether or not they have an absolute right to deposit them on people’s property without permission, which is about the lamest excuse for a slippery-slope argument I’ve ever heard.

      In fact, they were not even been enjoined from dumping them on people’s doorsteps in general. They were being required to honor someone’s request for them *not* to be dumped on a doorstep where they were not wanted. This is about as much of a free speech issue as my ability to walk away from someone ranting on a street corner.

      And if the court could not come up with a distinction between telephone directories and newspapers, they might want to avail themselves of the rather extensive case law on the distinction between commercial and non-commercial speech.

      In short, this is a moronic decision.

        1. Actually, looks like Xof did read the court decision and thinks it was poorly argued.  You do realize appellate court judges aren’t omnipotent beings, right?

  20. The companies dumping these ad books are probably doing so because they promise a certain level of distribution to their advertisers. If those companies are willing to spend large amounts of money on lawyers so they can keep dumping their ad books, I think they’re beyond caring about people. They only care about $.

    The ADVERTISERS, on the other hand, probably care a great deal about people, especially people who might boycott their businesses because they advertise in those stupid ad books. Heck, many of them were probably duped into buying ads in those books to begin with.

    I would imagine some creative campaign to educate and/or shame the businesses that support the ad book distributors might have a pretty substantial impact.

    1. “I would imagine some creative campaign to educate and/or shame the businesses that support the ad book distributors might have a pretty substantial impact.”

      I wonder if the people in these books actually ~pay~ for their spots these days.

      1. They pay through the nose — or at least get billed. I worked at a phonebook company for quite awhile, and the amount it costs to advertise is staggering. Of course, the number of advertisers who didn’t pay their invoices was also pretty high, with the worst offenders almost always being law firms (five to six-digit accrued costs).

    2. My thoughts exactly.

      I’ve seen many “opt out” pages where you can opt out of receiving the phone books. Why not have some sort of “pledge” list where people sign up to NOT use the services of businesses that advertise in Yellow Books? If businesses saw this level of pushback they might think twice about giving the Yellow Books their ad dollars. 
      It seems like this problem would be solved if you just remove the source of funding. 

  21. Oh motherfucker. All these things do is get rained on and rot on our doorstep. Nobody in Seattle wants them, they’re refuse.

  22. While I think that people should be able to opt-out of receiving phone books, I do not think that they should be banned (which seems to be the attitude of some people here).  Just a couple of days ago my mom brought out a phone book when it looked like we needed to find an emergency vet.  I was surprised to find that the ads were also useful because they had information like office hours and directions … something that the online yellowpages did not have. 

    1. “While I think that people should be able to opt-out of receiving phone books, I do not think that they should be banned”

      That’s not what this issue is about.

    2. It’s not clear that these are phone books. If you have an account with a phone provider, they have a reasonable argument that you get a phone book as part of your contract. Many of these books are just books of advertising printed by ad sellers and have no practical use.

  23. What’s a phone book?

    Amazing that there are enough yellow page companies to even form an association.  

  24. Doesn’t this count as trespassing? BTW, what does “corporations are/aren’t people” have to do with this? Isn’t trespassing by individuals just as wrong?

  25. Why should the USPS, UPS, fedex, and the paper boy for the local paid daily paper have a monopoly on the ability to drop things from strangers on my doorstep.  If they can do it why can’t anyone?

    I’m not saying this is a good thing, just trying to answer the question of why is this allowed at all rather than saying “this is silly”.  Only by understanding the reason for the status quo can we change it.

    1. In other words, how can we ban phone books without banning the USPS from delivering unsolicited first class mail?

      1. Weight restriction, if we were to institute such a thing.

        But your question doesn’t really apply because this isn’t a case of “unsolicited”; it’s a case of specifically rejected in advance via opt-out. If you have told someone not to contact you and they continue to do it, it’s harassment and you can get a restraining order (opt out). The post office isn’t liable if they deliver a letter, but the subject of the restraining order is.

    2.  I think for-profit advertisers should have to pay much heavier postage/fees in order to cut back on this stuff. I imagine these “phone” book dumpers would change their habits as well.

  26. You don’t want the phone book? Opt out. Dex publishing had and has an opt out system and presented evidence to the city and in court that it had an extremely low error rate.

    The town insisted that they use the towns opt-out system, that they paid for the town’s opt out system which duplicated their own, and the town exempted publishers of some phone books that had a different ratio of advertisers to “content”

    The court opinion said that insisting publishers had an opt out and fining them for errors (delivery in spite of opt out) would have been just fine. The drawing the line “well, their content is good enough, but your content is not” is where the 1st amendment question comes in.

    The court never said “you can’t ban the distribution of these books”, because the city never had a blanket ban. The court said “you can’t pick and choose who gets a ban based upon the content of their publication”.

    DEX MEDIA WEST, INC. v. CITY OF SEATTLE696 F.3d 952 (2012)United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.

    Read it. It is for some reason much more informed about actual content of the court opinion than any of the commentary I’ve read elsewhere.

      1. Dude, I’m on your side, I just want people to argue with the facts of the case rather than making them up. Example: It takes 97-some comments before someone points out that the post headline is a red herring. Not a good day for comment section SNR.

        1. I’m probably a little late to the discussion but on a whim I skimmed through the decision here:

          Boy am I glad I had my coffee. IANAL and am not used to reading through things like this.
          It seems like nnu-16121 has it correct.

          It seems that the city could do something like this if they did it in a different way. These things are always more complicated than it seems.

          The first part of the decision has to do with determing what kind of speech it is. But is was this part at the very end that seemed to be the most relevant:

          Such a regulation “is valid only if it is the least restrictive means available to further a compelling government interest.”
          the City advanced three governmental interests: (1) waste reduction, (2) resident privacy, and (3) cost recovery.We need not determine whether any or all of these interests are “compelling”; even if they are, the Ordinance is not the least restrictive means available to further them. One clear alternative is for the City to support the Yellow Pages Companies’ own private opt-out programs. With proper implementation, the private opt-out programs could achieve precisely the same goals as the City’s registry. Even fining the Yellow Pages Companies for a lack of compliance with their own opt-out terms would be less restrictive than compelling them to fund and advertise the City’s program.

          4. We do not hold that implementation of any of these alternatives would necessarily be lawful. They simply demonstrate that the regulations imposed by the Ordinance were not the least restrictive means.

  27. I love getting them! They are the perfect “BOYCOTT THESE BUSINESSES” list! I cheerfully check them off as the businesses listed fail and shutter their windows. Doot-dee-doo! Then I use the paper to wipe my ass.

  28. The only reason “corporate personhood” is relevant here is that it allows an organization to be a party to a lawsuit. Without corporate personhood, corporations would not be parties in a civil action in courts. They would not be able to sue, and you would not be able to sue them. They would not be able to own property, pay taxes, enter contracts, or be liable for any damages or conduct.

    The term “corporate” in “corporate personhood” applies to a lot more than just for-profit incorporated businesses: it means towns, cities, counties, churches, partnerships, non-profit organizations, Boing Boing itself (part of Happy Mutant LLC), unions, colleges, trusts, and other entities.

  29. But a corporation is a legal fiction–a thing made by people. Additionally, the longevity of a corporation (since the thing has been allowed to outlive its author) makes the idea of personhood that much more problematic.

  30. Reminds me of a Mr Show sketch, “Coupon (The Movie)” becomes a box officer disaster, so the studio sues the entire country and wins, then the entire population has to pay and sit through the whole fucking film.  The tag line becomes – “Coupon (The Movie):  It’s Mandatory!”.

  31. We have this shit in my neighborhood also; they wind up as a snow-sodden lump in our foyer usually, which is sad, because then you can’t even burn the damn things at a bonfire or something.

  32. Have you noticed that the type size in the white pages of these phone books is so small that a person needs a magnifying glass to read the listings?  It’s a pretty straight shot from the front step to the recycling bin for these things at my house.

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