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Victory in Ad Wording War

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Victory in Ad Wording War

Article excerpt

Over the past year, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia, has taken area newspapers to court over wording in real estate classified ads (E&P, Jan. 27, 1996).

But after a recent court victory by Montgomery Newspapers, the first newspaper company to beat the council, the advocacy group may have a harder time hauling papers to court over the wording of ads.

The housing council had accused Montgomery Newspapers in federal court of publishing real estate ads that discriminated against children by using such phrases such as "mature person" or "ideal for quiet and reserved single and or couple."

U.S. District Judge Clarence C. Newcomer concluded in a 20-page memo" randum that the housing council had produced no evidence showing that it -- or anyone -- had been injured by the ads, and therefore had no standing to bring the lawsuit.

Clifford A. Boardman, attorney for the housing council, said he planned to appeal.

Boardman said the job of the Fair Housing Council, according to Congress and the Supreme Court, is to stop the publication of bigoted advertising, "and there's no question that Montgomery Newspapers published bigoted ads."

Sam Klein, an attorney with Philadelphia-based Dechert, Price, and Rhoades, said there have been a "slew of lawsuits" accusing publishers in southeastern Pennsylvania of carrying discriminatory real estate ads. Most of the cases have been settled, often with newspapers agreeing to pay thousands of dollars, to train their classified ad takers, and to publish free ads.

The plaintiffs in all of the cases have been fair housing groups that claim the ads damage their mission -- not to individuals -- said Klein. He said that if Newcomer's ruling stands, housing groups would have to prove they -- or others -- have been harmed.

Unlike the newspapers that settled cases against them, one area weekly, the Ardmore, Pal.-based Main Line Times went to trial and lost on Dec.4. 1996.

Times publisher Deborah Shaw said her paper stood accused of running five discriminatory ads between 1994 and 1996. The judge found two of the five ads nondiscriminatory. But the jury found ads stating "no children/pets" and "for one person" discriminatory.

Nobody was denied housing because of these ads, which the council found by combing classified pages.

While mistakes happen, "it's clear there's not a pattern of reckless disregard for the Fair Housing Act," Shaw said.

And thanks to Newcomer's decision, Judge Robert Kelly in January reversed the $25,000 verdict against the Times and said he acted "prematurely" in allowing the case to go to the jury. He said the council suffered no actual injury, as the law requires of plaintiffs; presented no evidence that families had been barred from housing and showed no evidence the ads impaired its programs.

Furthermore, Kelly said "no individual or family with children had ever complained to the council about the ads," the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Boardman told E&P that the Main Line Times decision is already on appeal, and as far as this case goes, the newspaper didn't win anything.

He believes that the Main Line Times, along with the others who publish such ads, "lost" the minute they published them.

Boardman said that the Fair Housing Council filed charges against the Main Line Times three times regarding publishing ads that discriminate against children: in 1991, 1993, and in 1994. …

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