Two decisions issued a little over two weeks apart by separate U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit three-judge panels have created significant uncertainty on a critically important First Amendment issue. The court’s forthcoming actions in these cases will have a major impact on government regulation and on regulated industries as diverse as livestock, food, tobacco, smartphones, and medical devices.
The issue in both cases before the court is when can government compel businesses to provide information about their products or themselves. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel that government can constitutionally require disclosures of a “purely factual” nature which are “reasonably related to the State’s interest in preventing deception of consumers.” The Court has repeatedly reaffirmed Zauderer, most recently in the 2010 case Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz, P.A. v. U.S., where Justice Sotomayor wrote for a unanimous Court that a low level of scrutiny applies only in cases where the compelled speech is “directed at misleading commercial speech” (italics in opinion).
Country of Origin Labeling Rule. On March 28, a three-judge panel of Senior Judge Williams, Chief Judge Garland, and Judge Srinivasan upheld the Department of Agriculture’s country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule in American Meat Institute v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. AMI argued that the compelled origin disclosure impinged on its members’ First Amendment rights, and because the information was not meant to prevent deception, the court should review the rule under the heightened scrutiny of Central Hudson v. Public Service Commission, and not the “reasonableness” standard of Zauderer. In upholding the COOL rule, the panel concluded that Zauderer encompassed government interests beyond just preventing consumer confusion, and thus it applied the minimal scrutiny of Zauderer rather than Central Hudson.
That conclusion rejected years of D.C. Circuit precedent (including last year’s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. FDA) and instead embraced rulings from the First and Second Circuits. The panel acknowledged in a footnote that “reasonable judges” may read Reynolds as limiting Zauderer review to deception, and suggested en banc review for American Meat Institute. On April 4, the D.C. Circuit sua sponte vacated the panel decision and ordered en banc review. Oral argument is set for May 19. Continue reading