COOL, Conflict Minerals, GMOs & Beyond: Much Hangs in the Balance of DC Circuit En Banc Rehearing in Commercial Speech Case

EnglishChip_lowGuest Commentary

by Chip English, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP

Americans are naturally curious and interested about the food we eat and the products we buy—e.g., non-GMO labeling, country of origin labeling (“COOL”) and “conflicts minerals.” The question I explore here is whether and how far the government may constitutionally compel commercial interests to disclose information about their products when such compelled speech goes beyond preventing consumer confusion or deception.

These First Amendment issues are now front and center before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (often referred to as the second highest court in the United States).   While commercial speech is not as protected under the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence, it is still subject to heightened scrutiny. But the question now before the D.C. Circuit is whether the general four part test formulated in Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Ser. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557, 566 (1980) applies to compelled speech, or whether the decision in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, 471 U.S. 626, 651 (1985) carves out a special rule for all compelled speech as opposed to compelled speech designed to prevent confusion or deception.

On Monday, May 19, the entire D.C. Circuit, sitting en banc, will hear arguments regarding the constitutionality of USDA’s COOL requirements for meat and poultry labels. COOL requires all USDA regulated food labels to disclose the country or countries where the product was grown or produced. A panel of three judges upheld the constitutionality of COOL on March 28, 2014, concluding that Zauderer establishes essentially an exception to the more rigorous (if amorphous) Central Hudson heightened scrutiny test when the government seeks to compel commercial speech. American Meat Institute v. USDA, 1:13-cv-01033 (Mar. 28, 2014). The American Meat Institute (“AMI”) panel concluded that in addition to preventing deception, there may be multiple government interests in mandating a disclosure such as COOL that “are reasonably related to the state’s interests.” Id. at 11. The panel strained to define COOL as being supported by more than consumer curiosity—e.g., consumers may conclude that food produced in a particular country is not as safe as food produced in the U.S. (even though FDA and USDA are charged with appropriate food safety). Continue reading “COOL, Conflict Minerals, GMOs & Beyond: Much Hangs in the Balance of DC Circuit En Banc Rehearing in Commercial Speech Case”