In Federalist 10, James Madison warned of “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” These groups—“factions” in Madison’s terms—come together to seek concentrated benefits from favorable legislation and regulation rather than competing in the marketplace, while spreading the costs throughout society.
While Madison conceded that such interests could not be stopped completely, he acknowledged that certain steps could be taken to mitigate the “effects” of these groups, and the damage that they can do to the public interest. The First Amendment is one such protection. The New York legislature, however, ignored the First Amendment rights of both merchants and consumers when—at the behest of the credit-card lobby—it passed a law restricting how retailers can convey pricing schemes, as well as the public’s right to know about them.
New York’s no-surcharge law—like those in 10 other states—insulate credit-card companies from consumer knowledge about who is actually causing the higher prices on goods when they use their credit card (“swipe fees”). The law does this not by restricting the merchants’ ability to charge different prices as between cash and credit payments—that’s legal everywhere—but by regulating the communications regarding the different prices.
To put it simply: the law allows merchants to offer “discounts” to cash-paying customers, but makes it a crime to impose economically equivalent “surcharges” on those who use plastic. By mandating how these merchants convey their pricing structure, New York is restricting speech on the basis of its content, which would seem to be an obvious First Amendment violation.
A federal district court agreed—as have two other federal courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit when it struck down a similar Florida law. The district court held that the law “plainly regulates speech”—not conduct—by drawing a line between prohibited “surcharges” and permissible “discounts” based solely on words and labels. The Second Circuit disagreed, however, holding that the law regulates “merely prices,” not speech.
Cato has now filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take up this important case and rule that collusion between business interests and state government can’t be used to circumvent constitutional rights. Indeed, the Framers sought to protect speech from the type of crony capitalism New York’s no-surcharge law manifests. We also argue that the Court should clarify that the First Amendment covers speech even if it involves commercial matters. When legislatures abridge these protections, judges should apply the highest form of scrutiny to these laws rather than limply deferring to majoritarian will.
The Supreme Court will decide later this month, or possibly this fall, whether to take up Expressions Hair Design v. Scheniderman.
Thanks to former Cato legal intern Frank Garrison, who’ll be starting as a legal associate later this summer, for help with this brief.