Free Speech in the Classifieds

READING the classified section of a large regional daily recently provided a real eye opener. Neither looking for a job nor trying to buy or sell a house, I regularly avoid that part of the newspaper. But I checked the real estate pages on a trip to a city I had lived in some time ago just to see how expensive my old neighborhood had become.

To my amazement, it took a while to locate the actual advertisements. They were preceded by 113 lines of warning about words and phrases that could not be used. On the basis of my general familiarity with government regulation, I had been conditioned not to expect any mention of race, religion, or ethnic background on the part of those trying to rent, buy, or sell a residence.

However, I was not prepared for the paper's statement that "the following terms would be unacceptable in real estate advertising." Potential advertisers were being told, in effect, that even if they took full responsibility for the consequences, an advertisement containing the prescribed language would not be published.

In my naivete, I expect that extremely bigoted or foul language would have to be involved in order to justify the departure from the traditional freedom of the press. Indeed, people of my generation can recall seeing such vile signs as, "No dogs or blacks or Jews allowed."

Today, the designated inflammatory words include such "horrible" terms as adult, bachelor, couple, mature, one person, retired, and single. The implication is that if an 80-year-old landlord of a two-unit apartment building prefers not to have youngsters bouncing overhead, he is guilty of discrimination. Unfortunately, the examples that follow are even more extreme. Another prohibited description is - to quote from the publisher's notice - "executive (such as a 'large executive home')." I have read that item several times without getting any hint of the awful bigotry supposedly involved in describing a building as a "large executive home."

Likewise, it apparently is considered to be against the law to describe a building as "near St. Mark's." It would seem that the specific location would be a plus to a member of that denomination and thus constitute a selling point. Of course, the intent may be even more innocent - just to help prospective buyers or tenants find the place.

In addition, we are informed that we are not allowed to advertise that a residence is "ideal for a physically fit person." What harm are we doing, say, to people on crutches who are forced to make a trip in search of a residence only to find out that it involves a walk up several flights of stairs?

The tabulation was preceded by a warning that other words "not so obvious" have been interpreted by the courts to violate the Federal Fair Housing Act or state and local laws on that same subject. Nor was there much satisfaction in the statement that followed the citation of prohibited language: "This list is by no means complete."

The standard justification for government involvement in private decisionmaking is not present in the case of these restrictions on advertising. The censorship of language is not connected to government funding, assuming that is an adequate justification. Thus, this is not a case of the Feds attaching strings to the largess that they are providing. The prohibited language extends to all advertising of rental or purchased housing, even if no government money is involved.

In instances like these, we may wonder what happened to the constitutional provision that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; ..." It is sad, but apparently necessary, for a citizen to have to urge the press to be more concerned with the need to maintain our basic liberties.

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