Supreme Court Cancels State Restrictions on Liquor Ads

Article excerpt

Government efforts to limit advertising for liquor - and by implication other potentially harmful but legal products such as tobacco - hit a Supreme Court snag yesterday.

In a splintered decision that could set back President Clinton's proposals to limit cigarette advertising on T-shirts and at sports events, the high court found that a Rhode Island ban on liquor-price advertising in the state was an abridgement of commercial free speech. It did so despite arguments by Rhode Island officials that alcohol had a long history of negative social effects in the state, and that at least 11 other states have similar bans on advertising the cost of liquor.

The case, 44 Liquormart Inc. v. Rhode Island, is considered the most important First Amendment free-speech case of the term. But the ruling yesterday is not expected to have any implications for broader free-speech rights, such as political or religious speech, which have much tougher standards of regulation.

The case resulted from a law dating to 1956 in Rhode Island that banned liquor prices in newspapers and other advertising mediums, even to the exclusion of using the word "sale." The ban extended to media in other adjoining states that publish or broadcast into Rhode Island.

Lawyers for the state argued before the high court last Nov. 1 that by suppressing the public knowledge of liquor prices, limiting it to the discovery of the price only on the bottle in the store, the cost of liquor would rise so high that residents would balk at buying it. The resulting reduction of consumption is a public good and falls within a state's general authority to promote public health and safety by reducing for example, drunk driving, the lawyers stated.

But Rhode Island lawyers were able to present their case only as a kind of economic and public-good theory. Surveys and studies brought by both sides before the nine justices showed disagreement over whether the ban on ads actually reduced the purchase of alcohol.

Lawyers for Liquormart argued the state could not ban speech about a product it does not ban.

THE Supreme Court yesterday took, therefore, the higher free-speech ground, and struck down the ban. Justice John Paul Stevens said the Rhode Island law "has failed to carry its heavy burden of justifying its complete ban on price advertising. …