Federal Judge Dismisses Suit Against Newspapers

Fair Housing Council of Philadelphia Does Not Have Standing In Real Estate Ad Complaint.

A federal judge Monday dismissed a suit by the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia against Montgomery Newspapers, publisher of this newspaper.

The suit alleged that the newspapers and their publisher printed discriminatory real estate advertisements and made false statements about the council in the newspapers and in testimony before the Pennsylvania Legislature.

Judge Clarence C. Newcomer of the U.S. District Court granted a motion for summary judgement by the newspaper company and co-defendants Arthur W. Howe, publisher of the newspapers, and Naomi Brownstein, former classified advertising manager.

The council does not have standing to bring any of the claims in its complaint, Newcomer said is his order.

"In this case," he wrote, "plaintiff has not set forth any evidence indicating that it has suffered...an 'injury in fact' from defendants' newspaper publications or statements to legislators. The deposition testimony offered by plaintiff reveals instead that plaintiff has not lost any revenue, income, government contracts, or members as a result of the publications and statements at issue." Howe said the newspapers "believe that housing discrimination is reprehensible and that certain code words in housing advertisements can serve to discourage families and minorities from housing opportunities. We try our absolute best to keep this kind of wording out of the papers." "But that does not give these fair housing groups the right," he said, "to go around threatening newspapers and real estate professionals with lawsuits unless they fork over thousands of dollars." "From everything we've been able to determine, the money is used not to compensate someone discriminated against but to finance the operations of the fair housing group. We refused to cooperate and spoke in favor of state legislation that would curb these practices, and we got sued in the process for our positions."

Reuben A. Guttman of Provost & Umphrey, attorney for Montgomery Newspapers, called Newcomer's order "precedent-setting." "We think that the newspaper group made the right decision to stand up for its rights," Guttman said. "We believe civil-rights laws are important and sacred laws, but they should be used to protect people who have been discriminated against and not as trip wires for the unwary by parties that do not have any injury."

Samuel Klein of the Philadelphia law firm of Dechert Price & Rhoads, a recognized expert in laws affecting publications, called the order a "big loss" for the fair housing group. "If Judge Newcomer's decision is upheld," he said, "that will be the end of these lawsuits." The newspaper learned of the order late Tuesday. Efforts at that time to reach Cliff P. Boardman, attorney for the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia, were unsuccessful.

The advertisements at issue in the claim included words such as "mature person," "ideal for quiet & reserved single and-or couple," "professional male," and "mature setting."