Judge temporarily halts Oregon’s ban on real estate “love letters”

Federal judge said nation’s first ban restricted

(iStock)
(iStock)

Oregon’s nine-week ban on real estate “love letters,” the first in the nation, didn’t get much love from a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernández issued a preliminary injunction blocking the law, saying it violates the First Amendment by restricting free speech, the Oregonian/OregonLive reported. The letters are notes written to homeowners by prospective buyers, often to request a seller accept a less competitive offer.

The order follows a federal lawsuit filed by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the Bend-based Total Real Estate Group against Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Real Estate Commissioner Steve Strode.

The letters were outlawed as of Jan. 1 to ensure that sellers couldn’t make decisions based on race, national origin, marital or family status, sex, sexual orientation or other protected classes.

The injunction is a “major victory for free speech and economic opportunity,” said Daniel Ortner, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney. It “preserves the opportunity of home-buyers to speak freely to sellers and make the case why their purchase offers should win out. Love letters communicate information that helps sellers select the best offer. The state cannot ban important speech because someone might misuse it.”

Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed the law after it unanimously passed both the House of Representatives and the state Senate on a mostly party-line vote. Oregon State Rep. Mark Meek, a Democrat who is also a real estate agent, proposed the legislation, saying he started to reconsider the practice as he became more involved in work to combat housing discrimination.

The National Association of Realtors has said the letters raise fair housing concerns because they often contain personal information and could reveal a potential buyer’s race, religion or familial status.

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“That information could then be used, knowingly or through unconscious bias, as an unlawful basis for a seller’s decision to accept or reject an offer,” according to a post on the association’s website. A Ohio Realtors group made the same point.

The lawsuit said lawmakers provided no proof that discrimination was taking place and that state and federal laws already prohibit housing discrimination.

Hernández said Oregon’s goal was laudable, given its “long and abhorrent history of racial discrimination in property ownership and housing” that for decades explicitly blocked people of color from owning property.

The judge said the law was overly inclusive,banning significant amounts of innocuous speech beyond references to a buyer’s personal characteristics. He said the state “could have addressed the problem of housing discrimination without infringing on protected speech to such a degree.”

The preliminary injunction will remain in effect until Hernández makes a final decision.

[the Oregonian/OregonLive, Associated Press] – Dana Bartholomew

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