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COURSEY: Is a phone book free speech, or garbage?

When's the last time you used a phone book?

If you're like me, you probably can't remember. And by the way, I'm talking about a thick, heavy, thin-paged, dead-tree phone book here — not the digital one on your smart phone.

But if you're also like me — like most people in America, in fact — you've got a phone book or two or three hanging around somewhere in your house. Possibly near a phone (if you still have the kind that plugs into the wall).

The question is: Why?

A partial answer appeared in a short story on Page A4 of today's Press Democrat. A federal appeals court on Monday ruled that a Seattle law requiring phone book publishers to fund an "opt-out registry" for residents who don't want their directories is a violation of the First Amendment's protection of free speech. The story said the ruling also may derail San Francisco's attempts to ban phone books.

I'm a big believer in the First Amendment, and I can see why the phone-book publishers want to be treated the same as the free newspapers that periodically turn up at the end of your driveway. After all, there's a lot of money to be made on the advertising that goes into those things.

But I don't consider the phone book free speech. I look at those plastic-wrapped doorstops that pile up on my front porch as garbage, and that's exactly what most of them turn out to be.

That costs you and me and the environment.

Today's story said the city of Seattle estimated unwanted phone books generated 1,300 tons of waste a year (that's 2.6 million pounds) and cost taxpayers almost $200,000 to dispose. Nationally, phone books generate 650,000 tons (1.3 billion pounds) of waste a year, about two-thirds of which ends up in landfills, according to the Campaign for Recycling.

That's a waste and an expense that most of us could do without.


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