Attorney Speech Restriction Violates First Amendment

The tide is coming in on professional speech regulation. While we still don’t have an official “professional speech doctrine,” since the 2018 decision in NIFLA v. Becerra, the pace of cases considering – and rejecting – overreaching restrictions on the speech of professionals seems to be quickening. 

The latest example is out of Pennsylvania, where a federal district court just tossed that state’s Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(g). That rule – which tracks the ABA’s Model Rule – is an expansive anti-harassment and discrimination regulation. It states:

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

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(g) in the practice of law, by words or conduct, knowingly manifest bias or prejudice, or engage in harassment or discrimination, as those terms are defined in applicable federal, state or local statutes or ordinances, including but not limited to bias, prejudice, harassment or discrimination based upon race, sex, gender identity or expression, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, marital status, or socioeconomic status. This paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16. This paragraph does not preclude advice or advocacy consistent with these Rules.

The rule also contains a Comment noting that the definition of “the practice of law” includes continuing legal education and conference activities. 

Pennsylvania tried to argue that the rule prohibits “conduct carried out by words,” and not speech itself. The court wasn’t having it. Rule 8.4(g) isn’t a regulation that merely goes to conduct; it explicitly refers to the use of “words” to “manifest bias or prejudice.”

The court went on to note that in the professional context, the only categories of speech that get less First Amendment protection are commercial speech and straightforward disclaimer mandates, and thus that “the speech that Rule 8.4(g) regulates is entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment.”

It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will ever adopt an actual professional speech doctrine. But until and unless that day comes, cases like this one will continue to draw in the edges of those areas where regulators have previously felt empowered to impose broad restrictions on occupational speech.

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