This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

On the heels of a Washington State transportation budget containing a pointless, mean-spirited and counter-productive $25 tax on bicycles comes word that Seattle is preparing to pay $500,000 to settle a case brought against the city by Dex Media and other yellow pages companies.

Why?  Because several years ago, the city council thought it would be a fine idea to reduce paper clutter by imposing an opt-out registry on the yellow pages companies.  This regulation, while well-intentioned, suffered from some blatantly obvious constitutional infirmities.  But who cares – nobody loves the Yellow Pages, amiright?

Right.  But the fact that they may serve little purpose other than as monitor stands doesn’t change this fact: these publications enjoy first amendment protection as much as, say, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl.

So of course, we got the predictable lawsuit and appellate court dissection of Seattle’s law (which, by the way, offers a lot of pointers on the limits of the government to regulate speech even when it mixes editorial with commercial intent).  While the city could appeal to the Supreme Court, at least it had the sense to cut its losses now, paying the yellow pages providers half a million for putting them through this rigmarole.

This debacle-in-a-teacup offers a good example of why it’s rarely a good idea to pass “on principle” laws.  We’ve seen it a lot over the last few years with laws that try to stem the tide of gay marriage (like California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act), and we will no doubt get a bevy of examples in the next year on the gun regulation front.  Laws passed in the wake of a tragedy or “for the children” are particularly suspect.

Enacting public policy should require thought and deliberation.  But for far too many legislators, all that’s required is to pass feel-good, grandstanding laws with obvious problems and let courts sort them out later.  This process costs us all, and is no way to govern.

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