Federal Court Blocks ‘Love Letter’ Ban

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A federal judge ruled that an Oregon law preventing buyer “love letters” is a violation of First Amendment rights. The letters have commonly been included in home offers, with buyers writing to sellers expressing their desire for a home.

Last year, Oregon became the first state in the country to prevent real estate agents from forwarding such letters to sellers. The law, which was introduced by a real estate agent who serves in the state Senate, was based on the concern that the letters may include photographs and videos and personal details about the buyer which could lead the seller to choose among offers based on the buyer’s personal characteristics, in violation of fair housing laws. The Oregon law did not prevent buyers from communicating with sellers directly, however.

In November 2020, a lawsuit was filed in federal court by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of a real estate firm to block Oregon’s ban.

“Today’s ruling preserves the opportunity of home buyers to speak freely to sellers and make the case why their purchase offers should win out,” Daniel Ortner, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney, said in a statement about the ruling. “Love letters communicate information that helps sellers select the best offer. The state cannot ban important speech because someone might misuse it.”

The court found the ordinance to be too broad in restricting buyers’ speech, saying laws already exist to prohibit sellers from discriminating against buyers’ backgrounds and characteristics. 

Despite the recent ruling, the real estate industry cautions about the use of such letters. The letters could reveal a buyer’s race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected characteristics which could sway sellers in one direction in an offer situation. The National Association of REALTORS® has issued warnings over the use of such letters to its members. Several brokerages and real estate professionals also have taken a stance that they will not deliver such letters on behalf of their buyers due to fair housing fears.

Lisa Bates, a Portland State University associate professor in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, told USA Today that the letters could lead to sellers who may “consciously or unconsciously” choose home buyers who are similar to themselves, which could reinforce racial gaps in homeownership and neighborhood segregation.