Supreme Court Closes in on Regulation of “Professional Speech”

The facts that underlay NIFLA v. Becerra are ugly in a vaguely dystopian way. One one side, you’ve got “Crisis Pregnancy Centers,” outfits that reach out to pregnant women in extremis and offer them counseling and a variety of other resources. Oh, alongside a heaping helping of MY SWEET LORD JESUS and a big vacant hole where one pregnancy-resolving solution, abortion, might lie. On the other side? An overweening state government that has found a “solution” to Crisis Pregnancy Centers, and it is “force them to tell pregnant women that hey, abortion is an option – and the state might pay for it!”

So yeah: religion-fueled deception, or nanny state compulsion? Absent an uber-partisan leaning to one side or the other (a leaning that allows you to look past manipulation of the vulnerable or government-mandated ventriloquism), you’re not going to see any angels here.

However, as we’ve got expansive free speech rights here in the US of A, the balance lies heavily on the side of the bible-thumping manipulators. The “more speech” solution we’ve arrived at counts on more information in the marketplace of ideas – not the heavy hand of government intervention. And that goes for compelled speech as well. While the government can compel certain speakers to communicate all sorts of factual information (think warning signs, food labeling, some disclosure requirements), the First Amendment prevents the state from going further and requiring that speakers transmit less-factual, more-controversial messages. So it’s not surprising that California lost on this one.

What interests me about the case – and why I wrote about it when it was at the Circuit level – is the implications it has for lawyer regulation.

Implication 1: Many state bar rules contain extensive disclosure and disclaimer requirements. Some of these – such as requirements that contingent fee advertising disclose that clients may have to pay costs and court fees – are purely factual information that directly goes to the terms under which the advertised service is being offered. In these narrow circumstances, Bars have ample room to regulate. The standard under Zauderer v. Ohio is even more lax than the intermediate scrutiny applied to other forms of commercial speech regulation: such disclosure mandates will be permitted as long as they are not “unjustified or unduly burdensome.”

But as with California, some regulators have viewed this as license to impose all manner of disclaimer requirements. New Jersey requires that any comparative lawyer advertising be disclaimed with “No aspect of this advertisement has been approved by the Supreme Court of New Jersey;” 1 New York requires that that attorneys advertising that they have been certified as a specialist by another state do so only when such statement is accompanied by a disclaimer admonishing that “Certification granted by the [identify state or territory] is not recognized by any governmental authority within the State of New York.” 2; and Pennsylvania seems to have require disclaimers for all manner of advertising. 3

A big part of the problem is that courts often miss the nuance that the lax Zauderer standard doesn’t apply to ALL compelled speech. NIFLA v. Becerra makes this explicit, pointing out unequivocally that the standard only applies to disclosure mandates limited to “purely factual and uncontroversial information about the terms under which . . . services will be available.” What’s more, the court goes on to note that even basic factual disclosures must be supported by some showing that the disclosure is necessary to remedy a “potentially real not purely hypothetical” harm.

Newsflash: many Bar disclaimer requirements go well beyond the “purely factual and uncontroversial” – and they sure as hell aren’t supported by any evidence that justifies the speech compulsion. Will this be the impetus Bars need to clean up their regulations?

Implication 2:  More interesting is the Court’s handling of “professional speech.” This category of expression is one of the few remaining holes in First Amendment jurisprudence. Despite the widespread regulation of professional speech (and consider that UPL restrictions are nothing more than a form of speech regulation), there are NO Supreme Court cases addressing how such speech can be regulated. 4 In NIFLA, the Ninth Circuit found that the notices at issue  were professional speech, and – apparently finding a new category of speech regulation – determined that such regulation must meet intermediate scrutiny.

The Supreme Court, however, wasn’t having it:

“But this Court has not recognized “professional speech” as a separate category of speech. Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by “professionals.” This Court has “been reluctant to mark off new categories of speech for diminished constitutional protection.” [citations omitted]. And it has been especially reluctant to “exemp[t] a category of speech from the normal prohibition on content-based restrictions.” United States v. Alvarez, 567 U. S. 709, 722 (2012) (plurality opinion).

. . . In sum, neither California nor the Ninth Circuit has identified a persuasive reason for treating professional speech as a unique category that is exempt from ordinary First Amendment principles. We do not foreclose the possibility that some such reason exists. We need not do so because the licensed notice cannot survive even intermediate scrutiny.”

While it’s a little disappointing the Court didn’t go so far as to say “there is no First Amendment exception for professional speech,” this decision should make clear that professional speech regulation is at least subject to intermediate scrutiny. For the Bars, it’s yet another reminder of the pressing need for a more orderly, open, evidence-based, and – dare I say it? – professional regulatory process to ensure this standard can be met.

Notes:

  1. New Jersey Rules of Professional Conduct 7.1(a)(3).
  2. New York Rules of Professional Conduct 7.4(c)(2).
  3. See Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct 7.2.
  4. Yes, there’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, but that deals with informed consent requirements, which are considered “speech incidental to conduct.”

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