A Sharing-Economy Giant Asserts its First Amendment Rights to Oppose Government Censorship

indexWhen prohibiting or reducing “harmful” economic conduct proves either politically unpalatable or otherwise unachievable, governmental regulators often target speech about the conduct as a convenient alternative. Rather than ban the sale of tobacco or sugary drinks, for instance, federal, state, and local governments have imposed restrictions on advertising and other promotional speech. Unable to generate support for a second Prohibition, temperance proponents have attempted to chill alcohol consumption through speech limits, such as proscribing disclosure of alcohol-by-volume percentage on beer labels and even censoring ads for happy hours. In 2016, the so-called sharing economy became the government’s latest target regulating conduct by proxy. Thankfully, online short-term rental platforms like Airbnb are fighting back with First Amendment challenges. Continue reading

USDA’s Unconstitutional Ban of Food and Beverage Ads Establishes Dangerous Precedent

high-school-cafeteria-coloradoIn the dog days of summer 2016, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) ordered local government authorities to ban advertising for a select group of “disfavored” food and beverage products. The agency’s brazen action establishes a deeply troubling precedent in government’s efforts to usurp our freedom to choose what we eat and drink. Over the last several years, Washington Legal Foundation has closely tracked and strategically opposed actions such as USDA’s ban through our “Eating Away Our Freedoms” project. We launched that project five years ago this month on October 20, 2011.

The EatingAwayOurFreedoms.org website is organized by the four major tactics that activists use to denigrate certain foods and beverages and to stigmatize consumers’ choice of those products: regulation, litigation, taxation, and public-relations demonization. For several years, the “regulation” page contained far fewer references to news articles and other analyses than the other three. But as government’s appetite for food-related mandates and restrictions has grown, the number of “regulation” entries has ballooned. USDA’s ad ban is perhaps the most pernicious regulation EatingAwayOurFreedoms.org has ever encountered. Continue reading

Update: San Francisco Supervisors Repeal “Sugary-Drink” Ad Ban on City Property

sanfranA September 11, 2015 WLF Legal Pulse post, San Francisco’s Sweetened-Beverage Warning Mandate and Ad Ban Tread on First Amendment, discussed the serious constitutional infirmities of two advertising-restriction ordinances adopted in the City by the Bay. One ordinance imposed an immediate sweeping ban on ads for soda and other “sugary drinks” on city property; the other requires that warnings be included on billboards and other media that promoted those products by July 2016.

The American Beverage Association (ABA) filed a First Amendment challenge to both ordinances, as well as a preliminary injunction requesting that the court put the city-property ad ban on hold. On August 25, the city asked the court to enter a stipulation and order stating that San Francisco agreed not to enforce the speech ban while ABA’s suit was pending.

On December 1, the Board of Supervisors repealed the advertising ban. The Board did not repeal the warning requirement, and ABA’s constitutional challenge of that ordinance remains pending in federal court. Supervisor Malia Cohen, who sponsored the now-repealed ad ban, sought to mitigate this acquiescence to constitutional reality at the meeting by remarking, “I want to assure you that the war rages on.”

San Francisco’s Sweetened-Beverage Warning Mandate and Ad Ban Tread on First Amendment

GoldenGateIn past posts, we’ve characterized California as the “too much information” state. Under the everything-gives-you-cancer Proposition 65 law, even parking lots and coffee houses must post warning signs. San Francisco tried, and failed, to impose health warning signs at cellphone dealers. Undaunted, Berkeley passed its own cellphone warning ordinance this year, which faces a First Amendment challenge. And in the compelled speech spirit of those laws, Oakland has adopted an ordinance requiring builders to devote a certain square footage of new buildings to “public” art.

So it’s not surprising that San Francisco recently became the first city in America to require warnings on billboards and other media that promote “sweetened” beverages. Not content to simply compel speech, the Board of Supervisors also passed a sweeping ban on beverage advertising in certain city locales. The ordinances are so blatantly disrespectful of advertisers’ and consumers’ First Amendment rights, it’s not a question of whether a court will strike them down, but on which grounds it will do so. Continue reading

The D.C. Circuit’s “POM Wonderful” Decision: Not So Wonderful for FTC’s Randomized Clinical Trial Push

FTC_Man_Controlling_TradeThe U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last Friday largely upheld the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) ruling that POM Wonderful, Inc. violated the Federal Trade Commission Act by making unwarranted disease-prevention claims for its pomegranate juice products. But the ruling is far from the sweeping endorsement of FTC advertising-control measures that the Commission might have been hoping for. In particular, the ruling provides little, if any, support for the FTC’s recent assertions that food and dietary supplement manufacturers are largely barred from including health-related claims on product labels unless their claims are supported by randomized and controlled human clinical trials (“RCTs”). To the contrary, the appeals court made clear medical studies that do not meet RCT standards may nonetheless have considerable value, and that the FTC’s regulation of advertising is subject to strict First Amendment limitations. The decision suggests that courts may be very reluctant to uphold the FTC’s application of RCT standards to claims that a product promotes general health and nutrition, as distinct from claims that a product is effective in preventing or curing specific diseases.

POM’s ads were an easy target for the FTC. The ads touted POM’s products as effective in preventing a variety of diseases/conditions, including cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction (“ED”). Yet they failed to mention numerous shortcomings in the medical studies on which the disease-prevention claims were based—including that the studies’ findings were directly contradicted by other, larger clinical studies. Indeed, the D.C. Circuit held that it would have concluded that the ads were deceptive even had it chosen to apply a de novo standard of review to the FTC’s findings. (Because the case was on appeal from an FTC administrative proceeding, the D.C. Circuit reviewed those findings under a far more deferential “substantial evidence” standard.) Continue reading

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

White House Boosts Fictional “Food Addiction” Concept to School Kids

BSFriesAs we’ve discussed numerous times here, some nutrition nanny activists, regulators, and plaintiffs’ lawyers have embraced and promoted the concept that food can be “addictive.” The term grabs people’s attention, conjuring up disturbing mental images of helplessness and withdrawal. It’s no wonder, then, that the notion of “food addiction” is often invoked in the context of greater government regulation, taxes, and advertising restrictions designed to redirect our dietary choices.

On September 26, the concept received its highest profile reference yet, from First Lady Michelle Obama, during an interview broadcast to millions of students on the in-school “Channel One News.” When asked about the criticism the federal government’s new school lunch rules have faced, the First Lady responded:

It’s natural. Change is hard. And the thing about highly processed, sugary, salty foods is that you get addicted to it. I don’t want to just settle because it’s hard. I don’t want to give up because it’s expensive. I don’t want that to be the excuse.

The interview appears to have been very carefully scripted, so her mention of “addiction” was hardly spontaneous or casual, nor was her referencing it in the context of “highly processed, sugary, salty foods.” Federal government regulation is taking direct aim at those demonized products and their ingredients.

For instance, the Department of Agriculture has proposed banning the sale of certain foods in public schools that don’t meet “Smart Snacks” guidelines, as well as banning advertising of those products in schools. Also, as part of its update of the Nutrition Facts label affixed to all packaged foods, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing a new “added sugars” item. FDA is pursuing this mandate even though the agency acknowledges that no chemical difference exists between naturally occurring and added sugars in food. The “added sugars” mandate would also expose federal regulators to constitutional challenges under the First and Fourth Amendments, as leading food regulation attorneys Richard Frank and Bruce Silverglade argue in a September 26 WLF Legal Backgrounder.

The First Lady’s reference to “food addiction” was ill-advised, especially considering the age and maturity level of her captive audience on Channel One News. The concept of addiction has been significantly dumbed down and politicized over the past few decades to the point where it has almost lost any objective meaning. Reputable scientists have questioned not only the methodology behind “food addiction” studies, but also the researchers’ motivation.

The “Let’s Move” effort led by the First Lady advances the indisputably worthy goal of a healthier America, but that goal cannot be met by fomenting faulty food addiction concerns. Such a concept creates a serious moral hazard—people struggling to lose weight may throw up their hands because they believe addiction to (insert high-calorie product) has taken hold. Talk of addiction, and the choice-restrictive public policies it fuels, also diverts attention and resources from actual solutions to obesity in America.

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor page