Does the First Amendment protect advertising?

Yes, in the mid 1970s the U.S Supreme Court ruled that advertising was a form of speech entitled to First Amendment protection. In an earlier ruling in Valentine v. Chrestensen (1942) the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the First Amendment does not protect "purely commercial advertising."

However, three decades later the Court realized that the "free flow of commercial information" was important in society and that people have a right to receive information and ideas in a commercial culture. The Court reached this conclusion in Virginia Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Consumer Council (1976; see LegalSpeak, p. 52), a case involving a challenge to a Virginia law that forbade pharmacists from advertising the prices of prescription drugs. The state pharmacy board argued that there should be no free-speech protection for purely commercial advertising. The board also contended that the state could prohibit pharmacists from advertising prices as a way to preserve professionalism.

The Supreme Court rejected these arguments and overruled Valentine v. Chrestensen in the process. The state

Is it okay to stretch the truth in an advertisement because you are exercising free speech under the First Amendment? Or should such ads be strictly regulated? (iStock)

Is it okay to stretch the truth in an advertisement because you are exercising free speech under the First Amendment? Or should such ads be strictly regulated? (iStock)

pharmacy board wanted to prevent price advertising to protect the public. The Supreme Court said that there was another alternative to suppressing this information: "That alternative is to assume that this information is not in itself harmful, that people will perceive their own best interests if only they are well enough informed, and that the best means to that end is to open the channels of communication rather than to close them."

Does the status of a speaker affect First Amendment freedoms?

Yes, context matters a great deal in First Amendment cases. Adult citizens have the full protection of the First Amendment when they are in society. However, adults do not have the same level of First Amendment rights when they work as public employees. Likewise, public school students—most of whom are minors—do not have the same level of First Amendment rights when they are in school as they do when they are out of school.

What is the level of free speech protection for public employees?

Public employees have First Amendment rights but they are limited by the employment relationship. In one decision, Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006; see LegalSpeak, p. 54), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public employees do not have free-speech protection for

LegalSpeak: Virginia Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Consumer Citizens Council

The U.S. Supreme Court decision on Virginia Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Consumer Citizens Council (1976) read, in part, as follows:

Here, in contrast, the question whether there is a First Amendment exception for "commercial speech" is squarely before us. Our pharmacist does not wish to editorialize on any subject, cultural, philosophical, or political. He does not wish to report any particularly newsworthy fact, or to make generalized observations even about commercial matters. The "idea" he wishes to communicate is simply this: "I will sell you the X prescription drug at the Y price." Our question, then, is whether this communication is wholly outside the protection of the First Amendment..

As to the particular consumer's interest in the free flow of commercial information, that interest may be as keen, if not keener by far, than his interest in the day's most urgent political debate. Appellees' case in this respect is a convincing one. Those whom the suppression of prescription drug price information hits the hardest are the poor, the sick, and particularly the aged. A disproportionate amount of their income tends to be spent on prescription drugs; yet they are the least able to learn, by shopping from pharmacist to pharmacist, where their scarce dollars are best spent. When drug prices vary as strikingly as they do, information as to who is charging what becomes more than a convenience. It could mean the alleviation of physical pain or the enjoyment of basic necessities. Generalizing, society also may have a strong interest in the free flow of commercial information..

There is, of course, an alternative to this highly paternalistic approach. That alternative is to assume that this information is not in itself harmful, that people will perceive their own best interests if only they are well enough informed, and that the best means to that end is to open the channels of communication rather than to close them. If they are truly open, nothing prevents the "professional" pharmacist from marketing his own assuredly superior product, and contrasting it with that of the low-cost, high-volume prescription drug retailer. But the choice among these alternative approaches is not ours to make or the Virginia General Assembly's. It is precisely this kind of choice, between the dangers of suppressing information, and the dangers of its misuse if it is freely available, that the First Amendment makes for us.

Do young students have the same rights to free speech as adults? Recent Supreme Court decisions have held that they do not (iStock).

Do young students have the same rights to free speech as adults? Recent Supreme Court decisions have held that they do not (iStock).

speech made pursuant to their official job duties. However, if a citizen speaks more as a citizen than an employee, the courts will apply a two-part test from Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) and Connick v. Myers (1983). That test asks: (1) Did the employee's speech touch on matters of public concern or importance; and (2) does the employee's right to free speech trump the employer's right to an efficient, disruptive-free workplace.

A problem in this area is that it is unclear when an employee is speaking pursuant to their official job duties. Sometimes a public employee may speak both as an employee and as a concerned citizen. Many courts look to the "core functions" of an employee's job and try to determine whether the speech is required by the job.

 
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