Compelled Speech & Viewpoint Discrimination

First Amendment

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.

Notes:

  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.”

“Get Rid of UPL?”

The ABA Journal reports that Mark Britton – Avvo’s CEO, and my boss – told the ABA House of Delegates that bar regulators need to “get rid of UPL” and embrace innovation.

If you read the comments on the piece, you’ll note that Mark’s sentiment was not warmly or widely embraced.

That’s to be expected of the defensive members of my conservative and sometimes hidebound profession. Change is scary and unsettling.

But something’s got to give. There continues to be a massive disconnect between lawyers and the potential clients out there who could use their services – if only the bars could get out of the way and seriously consider:

  • Allowing non-lawyer ownership of law firms, so that talented non-lawyers could import from other industries the innovations, merchandising, and customer service orientation so lacking in the practice of law.
  • Significantly carving back the definition of “the practice of law” so that non-lawyers could provide a much wider range of straightforward legal-related services.
  • Removing artificial geographic constraints, so that attorneys could more freely find and serve their clients, regardless of physical location.

This is not to say that there aren’t questions and concerns that arise with any of these suggestions. The professional independence of lawyers must be protected, deception and shoddy services must be rooted out, and competency to practice within a jurisdiction’s courts must be maintained.

But it starts with having a real discussion about whether the current structure of overreaching UPL restrictions serves any of these ends well.

Are we really protecting consumers and the integrity of the legal system, or are we just trying to maintain a monopoly? As lawyers, we’re really good at pointing at the problems and potential risks in taking action. But the problems stemming from inaction are just as real. And we’re feeling them in spades as the legal services market becomes increasingly inaccessible – and irrelevant – to the vast majority of the public.

 

Why Care About Attorney Advertising Rights?

I am occasionally asked why I spend so much time focused on the tension between lawyer advertising regulation and the free speech rights of attorneys.  The perhaps-too-obvious answer is that my employer, Avvo, is built upon attorney advertising, and I’ve got a vested interest in seeing that attorneys continue to be able to advertise.

And it’s certainly true that working at Avvo has colored how I think about attorney advertising – but perhaps not in the way one might think.  For while I certainly do have a vested interest in seeing that attorneys continue to be able to advertise, that particular fight has long been over.  Attorneys can advertise, attorneys will continue to be able to advertise, and attorneys will pay good money to advertise for the foreseeable future.

For that, Avvo (and I) thank them.

But what I’ve discovered in 7+ years at Avvo is that the state Rules of Professional Conduct governing lawyer advertising are a sloppy mess, doing a disservice to lawyers and consumers alike.

Since Bates v. Arizona was decided nearly 40 years ago, it’s been settled law that the RPCs can’t stop lawyer advertising, or even limit those ads deemed to be beneath the dignity of the profession. Some might argue that this is a bad thing.  But that’s like trying to stop the tide. In the years since Bates, the Supreme Court has greatly solidified the commercial speech doctrine, with the First Amendment clearly protecting the right of businesses to engage in non-deceptive advertising.  Absent an abrupt, 180-degree reevaluation of how the First Amendment relates to commercial speech, this is not going to change.

Unfortunately, rather than regroup in the aftermath of Bates and devise more streamlined, meaningful rules, the bars simply kept their existing frameworks and bolted on begrudging exceptions for attorney advertising.

The result? Now attorneys have to parse the rules to understand whether they are participating in a “referral program,” or doing something that might be considered “solicitation,” or having the temerity to suggest they might “specialize” in an area of law. There are any number of ordinary means of communicating with other human beings that might technically run afoul of the bar’s advertising rules – particularly as means of communication proliferate.

Thanks to Bates, we’ve now got ever-more-ridiculous attorney television and billboard ads.  Yet at the same time, attorneys ponder whether they can respond to inquiries posted on Twitter, or highlight on their websites feedback from clients.  Where straightforward advertising is clearly allowed, other, more direct forms of communication – which are often far more valuable – exist in a legal gray area.  In this way, the uncertainty of the rules acts as a tax on lawyer communications, making it much harder than it should be for consumers to get information about legal services.

Some lawyers might think that’s a feature, not a bug.  After all, less direct communication means less opportunity for lawyers to deceive clients.  But that condescending viewpoint hardly gives clients – or lawyers, for that matter – the credit they deserve.  In most things speech-related, America has chosen the “more speech solution” as the preferred approach.  Rather than censoring speech, we’ve determined that it’s preferable to let competing voices hash things out in the marketplace of ideas.

Unfortunately, in the marketplace of ideas around legal services, we’ve got the screeching of the Law Hawk and the “life’s short” lady – and a whole lot of attorneys who are going around not communicating with potential clients out of fear of ending up on the wrong side of the Bar.

That’s messed up.  And that’s why I care about restoring attorney free speech rights, and scaling back the reach of the advertising regulations so that they are properly focused only on false and misleading advertising – and not on a clutch of outdated, picayune concerns.