Landlords sometimes try to “buy out” their tenants—give them money in exchange for vacating the unit. (This is also sometimes called a “no-fault eviction” because the landlord is trying to remove the tenant through no fault of the tenant. And we’re guessing that landlords try to buyout tenants when it’s in the landlord’s financial interest to do so, such as their ability to charge a higher rent to someone else.)
In 2014, San Francisco passed an ordinance that requires landlords—before beginning buyout negotiations—to provide their tenants with a legal notice advising tenants of their rights with respect to such buyouts. Among other things, the notice tells tenants that they have the right to have an attorney, that they are not obligated to sign a buyout agreement, how to contact the city’s rent board, and the names of various tenants’ rights organizations.
A group of landlords challenged the ordinance, arguing that the mandatory-disclosure requirement violates their First Amendment rights. They claimed that the law amounts to “compelled speech” because it forces them to notify tenants of organizations that can help them. Ultimately, however, they lost.
The Ninth Circuit found that the notice requirement is a regulation of commercial speech. And in the commercial-speech context, the government can require the disclosure of truthful information related to the government’s general regulation of that commercial activity. Although the landlords tried to argue that the disclosure requirement compelled non-commercial speech, they could not articulate which part of their “speech” was commercial and which was non-commercial. Thus, the court ruled for the city and upheld the law as constitutional.
Case: S.F. Apartment Ass’n v. City & Cty. of S.F., No. 15-17381 (9th Cir. Feb. 8, 2018) (opinion here)