Amid the hullabaloo over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this week in Matal v. Tam, a much broader and potentially more significant development might be overlooked. It shouldn’t be.
The case involved Simon Tam’s band “The Slants,” and as our Elizabeth Patton wrote earlier this week, it invalidated the Lanham Act’s prohibition on the registration of disparaging marks. The crucial development that might be missed, however, is separate from the fascination over whether this decision spells the end of efforts to invalidate the trademark registrations held by the NFL for its football team in Washington, D.C. – it does. Rather, the Slants’ case should be seen for what is lurking in the opinions of the concurring justices. That is, the Tam decision marks a potent evisceration of the First Amendment’s commercial speech doctrine, ensuring heightened constitutional protection for commercial speakers.
The commercial speech doctrine has long been invoked to allow broader, more intrusive regulation by government of speech that can be characterized as “commercial.” This is the doctrine that justifies not only the Trademark Office’s regulation of trademarks, but also the Federal Trade Commission’s regulation of social media, and a local municipality’s regulation of highway billboards. The commercial speech doctrine holds that because commercial speech is more robust – that is, because it is financially better equipped to defend itself – the government may have a freer hand in regulating such speech. Under this doctrine, a government regulation of commercial speech has heretofore been subject to a lesser degree of constitutional review – the so-called “intermediate” scrutiny of the Supreme Court’s Central Hudson test.
The Tam case dramatically undermines those prior principles.
Indeed, the various opinions in the Tam case buttress a development in the law that has been building in recent years, where the Supreme Court has been much more skeptical of government attempts to regulate the speech of businesses and other commercial actors. This latest case now solidifies a five-justice majority, and potentially a larger one, that will require rigorous, full-bore, core-speech “strict scrutiny” for government regulations of commercial speech when the regulations attempt to restrict or punish non-misleading commercial speech on the basis of the “viewpoint” expressed in the speech.
In other words, there are at least five justices, and likely more, who no longer focus on whether the speech being regulated is “commercial.” Instead, these justices are willing to apply strict scrutiny – and even a presumption of unconstitutionality – to a regulation that can be characterized as “viewpoint” based.
The nose-counting for this principle looks like this:
In his separate concurrence in Tam, Justice Thomas reiterated his long-held view, one that he persistently expressed along with the late Justice Scalia, that all government regulation of commercial speech should be subjected to strict scrutiny if the speech to be regulated is not misleading. Thus, as First Amendment scholars have long recognized, Justice Thomas already stands in the camp that rejects the rationale of the commercial speech doctrine, that commercial speech is entitled to less protection under the First Amendment.
In addition to Justice Thomas, a four-justice wing led by Justice Kennedy concurred with the outcome in Tam. Kennedy, along with Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan (that is, the so-called “liberal” wing of the Court) sounded a clarion call for the highest level of constitutional scrutiny on regulations that attack a person’s speech based on the speaker’s viewpoint, regardless of whether the speaker is engaged in commercial speech. Justice Kennedy wrote that “it is a fundamental principle of the First Amendment that the government may not punish or suppress speech based on disapproval of the ideas or perspectives the speech conveys.” He then said that regardless of whether the speech in question is commercial – that is, regardless of the nuances of the commercial speech doctrine – “[a] law found to discriminate based on viewpoint is an egregious form of content discrimination which is presumptively unconstitutional.” (emphasis added)
Thus, there is a five-justice majority, between Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, that will apply full First Amendment protection against a government regulation that discriminates on the basis of a speaker’s viewpoint, regardless of whether the speaker is commercial or not.
And finally, there is reason to anticipate sympathy for this view even among the rest of the justices. The portion of Justice Alito’s principal opinion that reflected only a four-justice plurality of himself, and Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Breyer, observed that the Supreme Court has said “time and again” that the public expression of ideas “may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.”
These pronouncements line up to be an eight-justice majority, and potentially a unanimous Court once Justice Gorsuch’s views become known (he did not participate in the Tam case). The Court has thus made clear that the government is barred from regulating truthful, non-misleading commercial speech where the only justification for the regulation is that the commercial speech offends the sensibilities of the listeners.
This expansion of the strict-scrutiny regime into territory once thought to be an area of more fulsome government regulation puts into play all kinds of statutory regimes. Clearly, in addition to the anti-disparagement provision of the Lanham Act, that statute’s additional prohibitions against the registration of trademarks that are “scandalous” or “immoral” soon will be invalidated. (Indeed, the Trademark Office has already signaled its recognition of the likely invalidity of these provisions in briefing it submitted to the Federal Circuit last year.) As a reuslt, trademark applicants who previously were unable to obtain registrations of marks with profanity in them or marks with sexual innuendoes now likely will be able to obtain such registrations.
Similarly, the FTC’s regulatory guidance that has required media companies to disclose whether content on their websites are “sponsored” is potentially subject to strict scrutiny because these restrictions are a regulation of commercial speech based on the viewpoint of the speaker.
Other statutory regimes are equally at risk under this now more robust protection of commercial speech. Hence, states that have enacted “veggie libel” laws that prohibit advertising that criticizes a state’s agricultural products are now likely to face a presumption of unconstitutionality and a need to justify the laws under a strict scrutiny regime.
In addition, states that have enforced restrictions on companies’ truthful, non-misleading advertising will face more legal challenges. One prime example will be the states where marijuana has been legalized but the states have also restricted how those cannabis businesses may advertise their products. Those regulations discriminate against the cannabis business’ advertising based on their viewpoint. The Tam decision means that those regulations are presumptively unconstitutional.
Similarly, municipalities that have prohibited or restricted the advertising of ride-sharing or room-sharing businesses also will find it much more difficult to defend such commercial speech regulations because they enjoin speech on the basis of the speakers’ viewpoints.
The fundamental sea change that can be seen in the Tam decision is that non-misleading, truthful commercial speech is no longer the benighted stepchild of the First Amendment. Rather, such speech now is entitled to the strongest form of constitutional protection when the government seeks to regulate such speech because of the speaker’s viewpoint – that is, when the speech is targeted “based on the government’s disapproval of the speaker’s choice of message.”
The practical effect of the Tam case, when read together with the earlier line of decisions applying the highest form of First Amendment protection against viewpoint discrimination, is that businesses now have an even stronger First Amendment basis to resist government efforts to control the way they speak to the public and their customers when their speech is not misleading.