Compelled Commercial Speech
53 Pages Posted: 2 Oct 2014 Last revised: 14 May 2015
Date Written: October 1, 2014
This paper is the text of the fourth annual C. Edwin Baker Lecture for Liberty, Equality, and Democracy at the West Virginia University College of Law, which will be delivered in November and subsequently published in the West Virginia Law Review. The article explores the burgeoning doctrine of “compelled commercial speech,” with special emphasis on recent decisions of the United States Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit, including American Meat Institute (“AMI”) v. Department of Agriculture, an en banc decision upholding the mandated labeling of meat products; National Association of Manufacturers (“NAM”) v. SEC, which struck down features of SEC mandated reports about the origins of conflict minerals; and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. FDA, which invalidated FDA mandated graphic cigarette warnings.
Commercial speech doctrine was established in order to protect what Central Hudson called the “informational function” of commercial communications. The object of the doctrine was explicitly to protect the capacity of an audience to receive information rather than to safeguard the autonomy of a commercial speaker. The informational function implies a constitutional asymmetry between restrictions on commercial speech and compelled disclosures of commercial speech. The former impair the distribution of information; the latter enhance it. The tendency of many judges to adjudicate compelled commercial speech cases in light of decisions like West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which defend the autonomy of speakers within public discourse, is deeply misplaced. The article defends the proposition that First Amendment jurisprudence is plural, not unitary.
The Court embraced the plurality of First Amendment jurisprudence in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which holds that factual commercial speech can be compelled if it is “reasonably related” to an appropriate government purpose. First Amendment rights of commercial speakers in such circumstances are deemed to be “minimal.” The article discusses the relationship between the Zauderer test for compelled commercial speech and the Central Hudson test for restrictions on commercial speech, which is the object of much unfocused discussion in AMI.
Compelled commercial speech, like government speech, is an effort to affect the content of public opinion. Both compelled commercial speech and government speech raise questions about how a democratic government may constitutionally influence the shape of a public opinion to which it is in theory responsive. The article seeks to explain certain doctrinal restrictions on compelled commercial speech in light of constitutional concerns that arise when government seeks to affect the content of public opinion. It offers an analysis of why government efforts to inform public opinion through the required disclosure of facts is constitutionally distinct from government efforts to shape public opinion through the required disclosure of opinions. The article explores how compelled disclosures of opinion may constitutionally be distinguished from compelled disclosures of fact, a distinction that lies at the heart of decisions like NAM and R.J. Reynolds. The article also discusses the kinds of state interests that may justify compelled commercial speech, which is the subject of great dispute in AMI.
Keywords: First Amendment, commercial speech, compelled speech, constitutional law
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