Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

U.S. Judge Sides with Tobacco Firms ; Free Speech Is Violated by Requiring Labels with Graphic Photos, He Rules

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

U.S. Judge Sides with Tobacco Firms ; Free Speech Is Violated by Requiring Labels with Graphic Photos, He Rules

Article excerpt

A judge said images like that of a man breathing smoke out of a tracheotomy hole in his neck violated tobacco companies' free speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

A judge in the United States has declared unconstitutional a Food and Drug Administration requirement that tobacco companies prominently display graphic warning labels on cigarette packages.

Judge Richard J. Leon of the U.S. District Court in Washington ruled Wednesday that forcing companies to use the labels, which show staged images like a man breathing smoke out of a tracheotomy hole in his neck and a mouth punctured with what appear to be cancerous lesions, violated their right to free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"The government's interest in advocating a message cannot and does not outweigh plaintiff's First Amendment right to not be the government's messenger," Judge Leon wrote.

His ruling largely echoed arguments he made in a preliminary injunction he issued in November.

The significance of the ruling Wednesday is unclear, since the administration of President Barack Obama has appealed the injunction.

"This decision adds nothing to the existing record," said Matthew L. Myers, a lawyer and president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group. "It represents an inaccurate statement of the facts, is wrong on the science of the health impact of tobacco and uses the wrong legal standards. Other than that, he got it perfect."

Five tobacco companies -- R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Commonwealth Brands, the Liggett Group and Santa Fe Natural -- challenged the labels, arguing that the government was trying to use their packaging not to inform and educate consumers but to advocate a change in behavior.

That, they argued, went beyond the "compelled commercial speech" courts have ruled is permissible under the First Amendment to protect consumers from confusion and deception.

"We believe governments, public health officials, tobacco manufacturers and others share a responsibility to provide tobacco consumers with accurate information about the various health risks associated with smoking," Martin L. …

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