The city council of Seattle has declared itself to be the decider of what speech is or is not allowed. When it comes to trying to rent out an apartment in that city, you’ll have to make sure your methods of marketing your investment property are approved by the judges of the modern Seattle Star Chamber.
Here’s a summary of the story written by Ethan Blevins, an attorney challenging the constitutionality of the city’s decision:
[The Seattle City Council] has slapped a year-long ban on the use of certain housing websites that allow renters to place bids on advertised rental housing, while it reviews the sites.
Officials say they fear the sites might violate local housing laws or inflate housing costs, so the City Council wants to study the sites while forbidding their use in the meantime. While city leaders try to figure things out, landlords are barred from posting ads on the sites, and renters can’t even do a simple search for Seattle housing on the sites.
The City Council will likely try to portray the website ban as modest and temporary, as if it is just pressing the “pause” button. But in fact, the City Council has resurrected a frightening government power — the power to censor speech until the government has decided to approve it.
This decision by the Seattle City Council represents what is known in the law as a “prior restraint” on speech. Simply put, “prior restraint” exists when government restricts or forbids certain types of speech before it is made. In this case, apartment owners cannot advertise their properties on certain websites for fear — completely unfounded — that those websites might be pricing certain renters out of the market or might be violating local housing ordinances. This is the textbook example of unconstitutional “prior restraint” on free speech.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, representing a website called Rentberry and a small-time landlord, has filed a legal complaint to fight this free speech restriction.