After suffering through the near-endless barrage of half-truths and distortions that marked this year’s political advertising, many Americans are in no mood to cheer the First Amendment. Yet, they should applaud a recent decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down a Seattle law restricting free speech. Speech regulations are sticky issues. The First Amendment, which applies to state and local government as well as Congress, allows “no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Based on case law, however, the propriety of such laws often turns on whether they regulate commercial or noncommercial speech, with the former afforded less protection than the latter. The courts reason that commercial speech can be regulated more than noncommercial speech because government has an interest in preventing commercial harm. That’s why advertisers are not allowed to make false product claims, for example.
The Seattle ordinance, which the court overturned in mid-October, banned the distribution of “Yellow Pages phone books” in the city unless the publishers satisfied certain rules. First, the publisher had to obtain a special license. Second, the publisher was required to pay the city 14 cents for each Yellow Pages phone book distributed within Seattle’s jurisdiction. Finally, publishers had to comply with an opt-out registry, permitting residents to decline receipt of future phone books from the publisher. To Read More….