Compelled Speech & Viewpoint Discrimination

So “compelled speech.” The government telling you what you’ve got to say. It’s surprisingly common, and also often uncontroversial. Think nutrition labeling and warning signs.

Other times, not so much.

So what’s the test? Under what circumstances can the government tell us what we’ve got to say?

I’ll tell you what the test SHOULD be: it should be the same “intermediate scrutiny” test that applies to commercial speech restrictions. Meaning that if the state wants to make a business say something, that requirement must be both necessary and narrowly-tailored. Oh, and there’s gotta be some evidence of necessity.

But this area of commercial speech law is a mess.

It all starts with Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, a 1985 Supreme Court case dealing with attorney advertising. One of the key issues in the case – and the one it is best known for – was the legality of a disclaimer requirement for “no recovery, no legal fees” advertising.

The Zauderer court found that the disclaimer rule must only be “reasonably related” to the state’s interest in preventing consumer deception. That’s a much lower bar to clear than the intermediate scrutiny standard. Pretty much any argument the state can make without breaking into uncontrollable laughter will do.

Unfortunately, some nuance has gotten lost since Zauderer was decided. What it seems the court meant – though it was only specifically called out by Justice Brennan in his concurrence – is that the “reasonably related” test is only appropriate when the compelled speech is necessary to avoid consumer deception. Sadly, what this has been taken to mean by many lower courts is that ANY compelled speech need only be justified under the “reasonably related” test.

So this brings me to the Supreme Court’s decision Monday in Matel v. Tam, a case involving the trademark application for the band “The Slants.” It was an important decision, and a unanimous one, 1 finding that the government’s denying of “disparaging” trademarks was constitutionally impermissible content regulation. But in a four judge concurrence, Justice Kennedy went even further, delving into the importance of holding the government to a high standard when it dictates a viewpoint, even in the commercial speech context:

“Commercial speech is no exception,” the Court has
explained, to the principle that the First Amendment
“requires heightened scrutiny whenever the government
creates a regulation of speech because of disagreement
with the message it conveys.” Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc.,
564 U. S. 552, 566 (2011) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Unlike content based discrimination, discrimination
based on viewpoint, including a regulation that targets
speech for its offensiveness, remains of serious concern in
the commercial context. See Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products
Corp., 463 U. S. 60, 65, 71–72 (1983).

If the government picking and choosing which trademarks are appropriate is “viewpoint discrimination,” why is the same not true for compelled speech? Or, at least, speech that is compelled outside of those situations where disclosure is necessary to cure otherwise-deceptive marketing messages?

This isn’t an idle question. There are dozens of instances of speech compulsion contained within state lawyer advertising rules, and many – if not most- of them aren’t designed to cure otherwise-deceptive messages. In fact, many require that attorneys publish the state’s view on the efficacy or usefulness of lawyer advertising. 2

Speech that’s compelled outside of health, safety, or a need to cure deceptive marketing is an even starker example of viewpoint discrimination than the picking and choosing of acceptable trademarks. I’d love to see the Supreme Court close this “Zauderer exception” to the commercial speech doctrine sooner rather than later.


  1. 8-0; Justice Gorsuch wasn’t on the bench when the case was heard.
  2. For example, New Jersey requires that any comparative advertising by lawyers state that “No aspect of this advertisement has been approved by the Supreme Court of New Jersey.”

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