In law, commercial speech is speech or writing on behalf of a business with the intent of earning a profit. It is economic in nature and usually attempts to persuade consumers to purchase the business's product or service. The Supreme Court of the United States defines commercial speech as speech that "proposes a commercial transaction".
In the United States
In the United States, commercial speech is "entitled to substantial First Amendment protection, albeit less than political, ideological, or artistic speech". In the 1980 case Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court developed a four-part test to determine whether commercial speech regulation violates the First Amendment:
- Whether the commercial speech concerns a lawful activity and is not misleading
- Whether the government interest asserted to justify the regulation is "substantial"
- Whether the regulation "directly advances" that government interest
- Whether the regulation is no more extensive than necessary to serve that interest
Until the 1976 Supreme Court case Virginia State Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, commercial speech in the United States was viewed as an "unprotected" category of speech beyond the pale of First Amendment protection. Indeed, the idea of commercial speech was first introduced by the Supreme Court when it upheld Valentine v. Chrestensen in 1942, which ruled that commercial speech in public is not constitutionally protected. In upholding the regulation, the Supreme Court said, "We are...clear that the Constitution imposes...no restraint on government as respects purely commercial advertising". This ruling, however, would be overturned with Virginia State Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council (1976) and Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission (1980).
The Court has recognized that commercial speech does not fall outside the purview of the First Amendment and has afforded commercial speech a measure of First Amendment protection "commensurate" with its position in relation to other constitutionally guaranteed expression. The Court has set forth a framework under Central Hudson for analyzing commercial speech under intermediate scrutiny:
At the outset, we must determine whether the expression is protected by the First Amendment. For commercial speech to come within that provision, it at least must concern lawful activity and not be misleading. Next, we ask whether the asserted governmental interest is substantial. If both inquiries yield positive answers, we must determine whether the regulation directly advances the governmental interest asserted, and whether it is not more extensive than is necessary to serve that interest.
Whereas Central Hudson limits what commercial speech can be said, another facet is related compelled commercial speech in the form of government-mandated disclaimers or other information required to be included in some forms of commercial speech. This concept was established as constitutional in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of Supreme Court of Ohio, 471 U.S. 626 (1985), which established the Zauderer standard to judge which such government-mandated speech does not violate First Amendment rights of the commercial speaker. Zauderer found that the government can mandate commercial speech to include "purely factual and uncontroversial information" when it is reasonably related to the government's interest and "to dissipate the possibility of consumer confusion or deception". The Zauderer standard has since been expanded within Circuit Court case law to extend beyond protecting consumer deception as to include factual information for consumer awareness, such as food packaging information, as long as the information serves a reasonable government interest.
Members of the Supreme Court have expressed doubts about the Court's differential treatment of commercial speech in relation to other types of speech. Justice Clarence Thomas replied, in 44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island (1996), that "I do not see a philosophical or historical basis for asserting that 'commercial' speech is of 'lower value' than 'noncommercial' speech." Justice Thomas would apply strict scrutiny to regulations of commercial speech. Justice Antonin Scalia expressed "discomfort with the Central Hudson test, which seem[ed to him] to have nothing more than policy intuition to support it".
In the European Union
The European Court of Human Rights has held that commercial speech is protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on several occasions since the 1980s, but lacks a counterpart to the commercial speech doctrine that exists under U.S. law.
In Germany, the courts adopted a strict approach to advertising and commercial speech due to its emphasis on ensuring competition. For example, in Barthold v. Germany (1985), the European Court of Human Rights held that enjoining a veterinary surgeon for advocating for 24-hour animal clinics (which did not exist at the time in Hamburg, Germany) violated his free expression rights. After the vet was quoted in a newspaper article, he was sued for violating the veterinary association's rules of professional conduct, which barred vets from advertising, and he was injuncted from making similar statements in the future.
In the 1990 Markt Intern Verlag GmbH and Klaus Beermann v. Germany case—described Europe's "leading case concerning speech in commercial context"—the European Court of Human Rights concluded that there had been no violation of Article 10 when Germany's Federal Court of Justice prohibited a publishing company from repeating statements that had been published in a specialist information bulletin criticizing the practices of another company. It noted that the prohibition did not exceed the "margin of appreciation which national authorities were allowed in laying down, in accordance with Article 10, §2, formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties on the exercise of freedom of expression".
- Central Hudson Gas & Elec. v. Public Svc. Comm'n, 447 U.S. 557, 562 (1980).
- Morrison, Alan B. (2004). "How We Got the Commercial Speech Doctrine: An Originalist's Recollections". Case Western Reserve Law Review. 54 (4): 1189. Retrieved 26 January 2018.
- Troy, Daniel (Spring 1998). "Taking Commercial Speech Seriously". Free Speech & Election Law Practice Group Newsletter. The Federalist Society. 2 (1). Retrieved 26 January 2018.
- Costello, Sean P. (1997). "Strange Brew: The State of Commercial Speech Jurisprudence before and after 44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island". Case Western Reserve Law Review. 47 (2): 681.
- "Today in 1942: SCOTUS Rules That the First Amendment Doesn't Protect Commercial Speech". Legal Research Blog. Thomson Reuters. 13 April 2012. Retrieved 26 January 2018.
- Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Reilly, 533 U.S. 525, 572 (2001).
- Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Public Serv. Comm'n of NY, 447 U.S. 557, 566 (1980).
- "Repackaging Zauderer". Harvard Law Review. 130: 972. January 5, 2017. Retrieved June 29, 2018.
- 44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island, 517 U.S. 484, 517 (1996).
- Kozinski, Alex; Banner, Stuart (May 1990). "Who's Afraid of Commercial Speech?". Virginia Law Review. 76 (4): 627–653. doi:10.2307/1073208. JSTOR 1073208.
- Krzeminska-Vamvaka, Joanna (2008). "Freedom of Commercial Speech in Europe". Verlag Dr Kovac, Studien zum Völker- und Europarecht. 58: 292. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1443922. SSRN 1443922
- "Barthold v. Germany". Columbia Global Freedom of Expression. Columbia University. Retrieved 26 January 2018.
- Council of Europe (March 2007). Freedom of expression in Europe Case-law concerning Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (PDF). Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing. p. 79. ISBN 978-92-871-6087-4. Retrieved 26 January 2018.