Freedom of Speech in Ads Gets Boost Ruling Could Thwart Cigarette Ad Limits

By Compiled From News Services Tim Poor of the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau contributed to this article. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 14, 1996 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Speech in Ads Gets Boost Ruling Could Thwart Cigarette Ad Limits


Compiled From News Services Tim Poor of the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau contributed to this article., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


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 prices.

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 interpret it.

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 increased regulation.

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 issue."

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. …

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