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Publishers of the Yellow Pages are suing Seattle. Earlier this year, the city passed an ordinance regulating the distribution of phonebooks. City officials say the books are obsolete - unwanted paper that gets thrown out. It then costs the city thousands of dollars to recycle.
But publishers disagree. They say the books are a valuable resource, and distributing them is their First Amendment right.
From Seattle, Bryan Buckalew reports.
BRYAN BUCKALEW: James Johnson(ph) is a maintenance man in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Whenever a stack of phonebooks lands on the front stoop of one of the buildings he manages...
(Soundbite of phonebooks dropping on the floor)
BUCKALEW: ...he ignores them.
Mr. JAMES JOHNSON (Maintenance Man): The guy that I work for never says throw them away. Never. Not once has he said anything like that, and I've never thrown any away.
BUCKALEW: He doesn't need to. The residents do it themselves.
Mr. JOHNSON: I'll come back the next day and see if they're there, they're gone. And they are all - most times, every time, it's all in the garbage. So somebody is wasting a whole bunch of money. You know, that's what it seems to me, or somebody is making a whole bunch of money on the waste of a whole bunch of money.
BUCKALEW: Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien wants to stop that waste.
Councilmember MIKE O'BRIEN (City of Seattle): The issue here is: The city is spending $350,000 a year to recycle the tons of phonebooks that are dumped.
BUCKALEW: O'Brien sponsored legislation to create a city-enforced opt-out list as well as place a fee on phonebooks distributed in the city.
Councilmember O'BRIEN: People can't just come, dump garbage in anybody's front yard. And while the Yellow Page industry will argue that this isn't garbage, to a lot of our citizens it is.
BUCKALEW: Councilmember O'Brien didn't always hate phonebooks, though. In fact, in college, he had a part-time job delivering them. But years later, he got an iPhone and didn't need the Yellow Pages anymore, so he decided to opt out. He went to four different sites.
Councilmember O'BRIEN: And I said I want none, and I still was delivered Yellow Pages.
BUCKALEW: The same day, one of O'Brien's aides got a new phonebook as well.
Councilmember O'BRIEN: And I thought, you know, this is crazy. Let's see how many are out there.
BUCKALEW: So they put out a message: If you have unwanted phonebooks, bring them to city hall.
Councilmember O'BRIEN: And we got a bunch.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BUCKALEW: How many did you get?
Councilmember O'BRIEN: I think we got like 700 phonebooks.
BUCKALEW: For O'Brien, the message was clear: Seattleites were sick of phonebooks piling up on their front steps. So he decided the city should regulate the distribution. Yellow Pages publishers weren't so keen on that idea.
Mr. NEG NORTON (President, Yellow Pages Association): Directories are commercial speech. And when you have to obtain a license in order to be able to speak, then from our perspective, that's a violation of First Amendment rights.
BUCKALEW: Neg Norton is president of the Yellow Pages Association, one of the groups suing Seattle. They claim Seattle's ordinance restricts free speech, unlawfully interferes with interstate commerce and violates the privacy rights of Seattle residents.
Mr. NORTON: No directory publisher wants to deliver a phonebook to somebody who doesn't want one, okay? That creates no value for us at all.
BUCKALEW: But can't you say to people you're selling advertising to our books appear in however many thousand homes in the Seattle area regardless of whether they're being used or not, if people opted out of those and, you know, wouldn't you be able to sell less advertising?
Mr. NORTON: We really don't sell based on circulation. We really sell based on usage, and like I said, the only way we create value for our clients is when somebody actually uses the directory, you know, picks it up and makes a phone call from it.
BUCKALEW: The YPA tracks usage by monitoring unique phone numbers that only appear in print ads.
Mr. NORTON: Directories are still a very vital resource for consumers. Even in this Internet age, people like the convenience of the phonebooks. You know, they keep it in the kitchen drawer, and it's certainly not, you know, a sexy medium like, you know, like search engines are, but it still is very effective.
BUCKALEW: And, of course, there's more than one use for a phonebook.
Mr. O'BRIEN: I've stood on one, and I've used it for my kids to sit on. I've propped doors open with them.
BUCKALEW: You can't do that with a smartphone.
For NPR News, I'm Brian Buckalew in Seattle.
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