First Circuit Permits Challenge to Massachusetts Prior Restraint on Billboards

billboardIn recognition of Free Speech Week, the WLF Legal Pulse celebrates what may be the First Amendment’s greatest virtue: it protects speech that may be unpopular due to the nature of the speaker or the medium within which it is spoken. We do so by applauding an October 20 U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruling that addressed a prior restraint on a method of communication that some disfavor—billboards—and that predominantly carries messages some consider unworthy of full constitutional protection—advertisements.

Unbridled regulatory authority. Section 302 of the Massachusetts Code of Regulations requires all outdoor advertisers to obtain both an operating license and a permit for each specific sign. The regulation vests the Director of the Office of Outdoor Advertising (“Director”) with broad discretion to grant, withhold, or revoke licenses and permits for billboards. Section 302 enumerates several factors that the Director “may” consider, including “health, safety, and general welfare” and “not [being] in harmony with the surrounding area.” The regulation, however, states the listed factors are non-exclusive and that the Director’s authority is “[w]ithout limitation.”

Van Wagner Communications, which lobbied against the 2012 amendments to Section 302, filed a facial challenge to the regulation in federal court, arguing that it imposed an unconstitutional prior restraint on the company’s speech. The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts held that because the Director had approved Van Wagner’s license and all 70 of its permit requests over two years, the company suffered no injury and thus lacked standing to sue. Continue reading

Update: World Trade Organization Rejects USDA Meat Rule on Country of Origin Labeling

WTOYesterday, a World Trade Organization (WTO) compliance panel publicly released its determination that the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) country of origin labeling rule for certain cuts of muscle meat violated the international Technical Barriers to Trade agreement. Canada had sought such a determination, supported by other nations such as Argentina, Australia, and Japan.

News reports on this decision caught The WLF Legal Pulse‘s attention because U.S. meat producers had challenged the so-called COOL rule under the First Amendment in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  A number of posts (here and here) assessed the court’s July 29 en banc decision rejecting the producers’ challenge.

As we argued in the August 25 post, the majority improperly assisted the government by identifying the substantial government interests that the USDA rule advanced, including the protection of domestic farmers from foreign competition. Because of the pending proceedings at the WTO, the U.S. government had formally denied that protectionism was one of the goals of its COOL regulation.

The meat producers have asked the D.C. Circuit to reconsider its en banc holding, a motion on which the court has yet to rule. It is uncertain what impact the WTO determination will have on that request.

Not so “Grrr-eat”: The Response Nutrition Nannies Have Grown to Love

Half-full or half-empty?

Half-empty

Nice, but not good enough. That is the near-Pavlovian response professional activists routinely offer whenever their targets announce some voluntary action that, to the casual observer, seems to advance the activists’ agenda.

Consider, for instance, a September 23 Politico story, “Food, Beverage Firms to Dial Back Marketing to Kids.” The story reported on voluntary commitments International Food and Beverage Alliance member companies made to the World Health Organization regarding product marketing to children under 12. Those commitments include restrictions that nutrition activists have long sought from government regulators. Yet, there was the glass-half-empty response of Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) nutrition policy director, Margo Wootan:

If they’re saying they’re covering all media, they’re not. They’re missing on-package marketing [and] in-store and on-display marketing.

Ms. Wootan’s comments confirm a theory WLF has been arguing for the past several years in the context of plain packaging initiatives for tobacco: activists have their sights on more than one category of consumer products. Continue reading

Second Circuit Overturns Law that Compelled Businesses to Advertise their Competitors’ Services

2nd CircuitOn September 4, with Safelite Group, Inc. v. Jepsen, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit made an important contribution to the jurisprudence of compelled speech (an area of growing disharmony in the federal courts, as we’ve noted recently). The court unanimously struck down a Connecticut law that permitted certain businesses to promote their auto-glass repair services only if they mentioned the similar services of their competitors.

The Law at Issue. The Petitioner, Safelite Group, is an insurance claims management company that owns and operates a Connecticut affiliate, Safelite Auto Glass. If auto insurance companies direct Connecticut drivers with auto-glass claims to Safelite, Safelite can recommend (but, under state law, cannot require) Safelite Auto Glass to do the repairs. When it does so, Safelite voluntarily discloses its ownership interest to the insureds. If insureds cannot or do not want to utilize a Safelite Auto Glass shop, Safelite recommends another shop that Safelite has pre-approved.

Unaffiliated Connecticut auto-glass shops took their complaints about Safelite’s “unfair” practices to the legislature, which in May 2013 adopted a law that in part prohibits insurance companies or their claims administrators from mentioning their affiliate repair shops unless they also reference a competitor.

First Amendment Challenge. Safelite sought a preliminary injunction against Connecticut’s enforcement of the law, arguing in federal district court that the compelled speech requirement abridged its First Amendment rights. The district court denied the injunction, holding that the mandate simply required disclosure of factual, uncontroversial information that does not offend the company’s First Amendment freedoms. Continue reading

High Court Presented with Opportunity to Reinforce its Compelled Speech Jurisprudence

first-amendmentA petition for writ of certiorari filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on July 17 (the respondent’s reply is still pending) may provide the justices with a timely opportunity to clarify the Court’s jurisprudence on compelled speech. The case, Anthem Prescription Management v. Beeman, involves the increasingly common practice by government of enlisting private enterprises to communicate certain messages against their will. As we have discussed here recently, the lower federal courts are fractured over the amount of First Amendment scrutiny judges should apply when businesses challenge such speech mandates.

Laws Correcting Deception. Beginning with Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel in 1985, the Supreme Court has developed a consistent jurisprudence on compelled speech for commercial enterprises. Zauderer recognized businesses’ First Amendment rights to communicate with consumers about their products. But the Court noted that such protection is minimal for misleading or false commercial speech. It held that “an advertiser’s rights are adequately protected as long as disclosure requirements are reasonably related to the State’s interest in preventing deception of consumers.” The Court emphasized that the speech mandate must require “purely factual and uncontroversial information” and not be “unduly burdensome.”

Laws Not Targeting Deception. What if the government interest underlying a speech mandate is not correction of deception? In our opinion, the Court spoke quite clearly in Zauderer, carving out prevention of deception as a unique exception to the First Amendment’s heightened protection of commercial speech, and thus heightened scrutiny should still apply to other speech mandates. Continue reading

FDA’s “Added Sugar” Labeling Proposal: More Information Isn’t Always Better (or Legal)

FDA's proposed Nutrition Facts format

FDA’s proposed Nutrition Facts format

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposed addition of “added sugars” to the mandatory Nutrition Facts label on packaged food lacks scientific justification, is more likely to confuse than inform consumers, and will expose the agency to a constitutional challenge. So why is FDA pushing forward with this counterproductive idea?

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In announcing proposed changes to the 20-year old “Nutrition Facts” label, FDA reminded us that the purpose of the ubiquitous label is to “help[] consumers make informed food choices and maintain healthy dietary practices.” The update ostensibly would provide, among other improvements, “greater understanding of nutrition science.” However, one of the update’s most highly touted additions—a new line item for “Added Sugars,” triple-indented under “Carbohydrates” and “Total Sugars”— thoroughly fails to achieve these stated goals and contradicts current nutrition science.

Uninformative. If the Nutrition Facts label exists to “help consumers to make informed food choices,” then shouldn’t FDA be certain that listing added sugars would in fact be helpful? The agency, though, acknowledges in its March 3 proposal that it is “not aware of any existing consumer research that has examined this topic.

One public comment provided to FDA did offer consumer research, and the data thoroughly undercuts the “Added Sugars” proposal. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation conducted a consumer survey that conformed to OMB requirements for government research. The results revealed confusion among surveyed consumers over the meaning of “Added Sugars.” More than half of respondents believed that Added Sugars were different from the sugars included in “Total Sugars.” A substantial number believed that instead of being a part of the Total Sugars figure, Added Sugars should be added to Total Sugars. Consider, for instance, a bottle of sweetened iced tea, which is currently labeled to contain 22 grams of sugar per serving.  None of the sugar is naturally occurring. If the proposed Nutrition Facts label is adopted in its entirety, consumers might look at the 22 grams of Total Sugars, and the 22 grams of Added Sugars, and conclude that the tea contains 44 grams per serving. In addition, the survey found that a majority of consumers felt that products listing added sugars contained more sugar than was actually present, a perception that would affect their purchasing decisions.

An agency whose mission is consumer protection must not mandate confusing or misleading label information. FDA should take heed of the IFIC Foundation research and do what it should have done from the start: study the issue before mandating that Added Sugars be listed. Continue reading

D.C. Circuit’s “COOL” Decision Eases Government’s Burden in Justifying Compelled Speech

DC CircuitIf government wants to force you to say something you would not otherwise express, it must have a very good reason for doing so. This bedrock First Amendment principle applies to individuals and business enterprises alike.

In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit—arguably the nation’s second most important federal court—carved away at this principle and the constitutional protection it provides. Below, we discuss how that court allowed a federal agency to repeatedly change its declared reason for compelling speech and in an en banc panel opinion improperly eased government’s burden to prove a substantial governmental interest.

District Court Challenge. The compelled speech at issue in American Meat Institute (AMI) v. USDA is a country of origin label (“COOL”) recording the place of birth, residence, and slaughter of the animal from which each cut of meat taken. In the proposed rule’s Statement of Benefits and Costs, USDA asserted the mandate was justified because “certain U.S. consumers valued the designation.” AMI argued in its public comments that this interest was neither governmental nor substantial. USDA responded in the final rule with a stunning tautology: our interest is substantial and governmental because Congress empowered us to impose the COOL mandate.

When AMI sued to enjoin COOL on July 25, 2013, the agency again shifted focus, advancing a new justification that never appeared in the administrative record: “correct misleading speech and prevent consumer deception.” The federal district court bought USDA’s made-for-litigation governmental interest while denying AMI’s motion. In permitting this new justification, Judge Jackson ignored a 1947 Supreme Court precedent, SEC v. Chenery Corp. That decision holds that when judging the propriety of agency action, courts are limited to what is in the administrative record. Continue reading