“Getting” Commercial Speech

The Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression is a program at Yale law; yesterday it put on a symposium in New York City on “Commercial Speech and the First Amendment.” It was a surprisingly well-attended event, sold out with a waiting list; probably a couple hundred folks there.

And, of course, squarely in the sweet spot for this blog and my legal interests. I was speaking on a panel, but I found the whole program fascinating. Not only because it’s rare to be in a room with lawyers who have even heard about the commercial speech doctrine – let alone a bunch who know way more about it than I do – but also because the state of the art in understanding commercial speech law is so, so far removed from what attorney regulators do when dealing with commercial speech.

How’s that? Well, the panel before mine featured Floyd Abrams himself, along with a bunch of law professors debating the extent to which the commercial speech doctrine is getting subsumed into the strict scrutiny analysis applicable to most other forms of content-based speech regulation. No one on the panel doubted that the bar for regulating commercial speech was being raised, at least in some ways; the debate was over whether this development is a good thing.

Lawyer regulators? It’s a rare day that you even see an acknowledgement that their ability to regulate is constrained in any meaningful way by the First Amendment.

My co-panelists, Denise Esposito and Rebecca Tushnet, discussed the regulatory challenges facing the FDA and Trademark Office, respectively. In both cases, it’s a matter of generally thoughtful, restrained regulation running into a broader trend of freeing up speech in the margins.

Lawyer regulators? New York’s rules of lawyer advertising run longer than 4,000 words; they know little, if any, restraint (other than what gets forced on them by federal courts).

Judge Alex Kozinski was there, too, cracking wise and noting that the idea that free speech is just for the preservation of self-governance is “bull-pucky.” And Mary Engle from the FTC walked us through how a thoughtful, mature regulator deals with advertising regulation – something that closely approximated the polar opposite of the mechanical approach taken by state advertising regulation. In a statement that would surely shock many state regulators, she noted that many ads don’t need to be labeled “advertisement,” as it is obvious what they are. Gasp!

My only regret is that more folks from the Bars couldn’t be there. Because there is a place for attorney advertising regulation – it just needs to be approached in a manner that respects both the First Amendment rights of those speaking, and the reality that flexible approaches are often preferable to rigid rules.

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