NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Costs of "Free" Speech

February 10, 1997

Think speech is still free and you can innocently compose an ad for the newspaper? Think again, free speech advocates warn.

A suburban Philadelphia landlord was accused by the local Fair Housing Council of trying to exclude children by using the words "quiet" and "mature" in his ad to rent out his apartments. The Council sued him for $10,000, and the suburban newspaper which carried the ad settled for $75,000.

  • The 1968 Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to screen home buyers by race, color, national origin or religion -- with sex, disability or having children added in 1988.
  • Under 1989 Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines, phrases such as "near synagogue," "Christian" or "one mile past country club" are forbidden -- even the word "integrated."
  • The law invites anyone who spots a potentially offensive ad to contact his local housing agency office or even go to court and collect damages.

Consequently, watchdog groups have sprung up and the federal budget for fair housing "education and enforcement" climbed to $26 million by 1994. The groups -- known as fair housing councils -- hire people to scour the classified ads for anything even remotely offensive. These groups then threaten advertisers and publishers with legal suits unless they fork over cash to the councils -- a process some say smacks of extortion.

  • In 1991, a group of Oregon newspapers were forced to hand over to the state's Fair Housing Council $25,000 cash and $42,500 in free advertising for allowing such phrases as "2-person limit," "adults preferred" and "no children."
  • After a year of litigation, a California newspaper publisher was forced to file for bankruptcy protection after he was pursued by a local fair housing council for allowing phrases such as "adults pref." to slip into his paper.
  • A hapless Wisconsin woman was pursued to pay $15,000 in legal fees to the Milwaukee council for advertising for a "mature Christian handyman."

Although the Department of Housing and Urban Development has stopped publishing the guidelines and Congress has cut the budget for fair housing groups to $17 million as of last year, the harassment continues.

Source: Brigid McMenamin, "The P.C. Enforcers," Forbes, February 10, 1997.


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