Last week the U.S. District Court in Sacramento rejected a California rule requiring Web sites that offer lists of homes for sale to obtain broker's licenses. The court concluded that the rule, which does not apply to print publications or their online counterparts, was a "wholly arbitrary" infringement on freedom of speech. It called the state's argument for distinguishing between newspapers and Web sites like ForSaleByOwner.com "totally unpersuasive," writing:
There appears to be no justification whatsoever for any distinction between the two mediums…While Defendants vaguely attempt to paint newspapers as geographically situated and relatively more stable than Internet companies, they have not established why this should require websites like FSBO's to obtain a California broker's license…when online services doing exactly the same thing are not subject to any licensing requirement so long as they are operated by a "newspaper." Defendants provide no reasonable explanation whatsoever for this requirement, let alone a compelling interest to justify it.
It's nice to see such a ridiculous regulation so decisively rejected, especially since the ruling builds on another victory for the freedom of online speech. The Institute for Justice, which brought this case, notes that the court cited a 1999 decision by the U.S. District Court in D.C. that rejected a federal licensing requirement for Web site operators and software publishers who provide information about commodities--another case in which I.J. was involved. But it's odd, to say the least, that while lower courts are rejecting official distinctions between journalists and others when it comes to commercial speech, the Supreme Court has upheld such a distinction for political speech, as embodied in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.