Today, we sued Seattle for banning a website. The city council decided that it didn’t like new housing websites that allow tenants to bid on rent. The city council had no evidence that these websites hurt anyone. Only a handful of people in Seattle have even had a chance to use the new sites. But the city council banned them for a year anyway while the city studies them.
PLF is representing Rentberry, a small startup that operates a rent-bidding website, and Delaney Wysingle, a small-time landlord who’d like to try out this new technology. Our lawsuit argues that the First Amendment forbids the city from slapping an outright ban on a website without a wink of evidence. The council’s excuse for this thuggish gimmick is an unfounded fear: the council worries these websites might conflict with local housing laws or might inflate housing costs. The ban’s sponsor, Teresa Mosqueda, said, “we must have the opportunity to learn about new platforms, such as these ‘rent bidding’ platforms, and ensure that they live up to the equity and housing access values of our city.” Apparently, the people of Seattle lack the wisdom and virtue to figure out their own values or assess a website unsupervised. But the city council is not shackled by such human frailty. Hurray.
Ironically, rent-bidding platforms try to address a problem that the city council itself has utterly failed to fix–high housing costs. Bidding allows rents to arrive at a rate determined by a transparent market, which may be above or below a landlord’s asking price. And websites like Rentberry provide a range of other benefits like cheaper application fees, crowd-sourced funds to help users afford steep security deposits, and a streamlined application process. The city council should give innovation a chance. In fact, the city council must give innovation a chance; they aren’t feudal lords who get to decide what’s best for their flock of groveling serfs.
Usually, censorship–especially something as severe as banning a website–would be a last resort. For Seattle, it’s the first resort. Usually, only overwhelming evidence can justify censorship. For Seattle, the ghost of a suspicion will do. Seattle touts itself as a tech hub, but tech-savvy cities don’t ban innocent websites at the drop of a hat. That’s the kind of self-righteous bullying we’d expect from a tin-pot dictator, not a city on our own shores. But a city on our shores also has to explain its behavior to our courts. That won’t be easy.