In a ruling that might hamper President Bill Clinton's effort
to limit cigarette advertising, the Supreme Court struck down on
Monday Rhode Island's ban on ads that list or refer to liquor
The court ruled unanimously that the ban, aimed at promoting
sobriety, violates free-speech rights. The ruling also gave other
commercial speech greater protection against government regulation.
The full impact of the ruling, spelled out in four separate
opinions, probably will not be known until lower courts begin to
But it marked the Supreme Court's strongest statement against
regulating commercial speech since a decision in 1975 extended to
advertising the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee.
Monday's decision appeared to move commercial speech a step
closer to being as protected against government regulation as
political or artistic expression. But although all nine justices
voted to enhance the freedom to advertise, only four favored doing
so in sweeping fashion.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the main opinion that
blanket bans such as Rhode Island's prohibition against liquor ads
"rarely survive constitutional review." He rejected the argument
that ads for "vice" products such as liquor should be subjected to
Just labeling some activity as a vice is not enough to justify
clamping down on accurate advertising if that activity remains
legal, Stevens said.
Clinton and the Food and Drug Administration have proposed
rules that would forbid cigarette advertising at sports events and
on T-shirts and other goods. The rules would ban tobacco billboards
within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, and limit pictures
and colors in cigarette ads.
"I think the court's ruling gives more ammunition to those who
inevitably are going to challenge any restrictions on cigarette
advertising," said Scott Bullock, an attorney for the Institute of
Justice who had opposed the Rhode Island ban. "It's not a closed
case, but the ruling appears to help their arguments."
Jim O'Hara, an FDA spokesman, said the proposed rules would not
amount to a blanket ban on cigarette advertising but instead are
aimed at reducing tobacco products' appeal to minors, for whom
smoking is illegal.
Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, added: "We are
interested in advertising that is aimed at minors, at young people.
. . . The president sees smoking by young people as a health
The advertising industry, which is challenging FDA tobacco
proposals, cheered the ruling. "Big Brother took a hit between the
eyes with this decision," said Hal Shoup, executive vice president
of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. …