Berkeley Advances Junk Science in the Name of Consumer Protection

Residents of Berkeley, California are a little bit scared about potential radio-frequency exposure from cellphones. Despite the FCC’s conclusion that there’s “no scientific evidence” linking “wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses,” the city mandated that any party buying or leasing cellphones communicate a specific message to every customer about radio-frequency exposure. Getting bad vibes from that requirement, CTIA (the wireless industry’s trade group) sued Berkeley for violating the First Amendment by compelling that speech.

It’s a cornerstone of First Amendment law that the right to speak necessarily entails the right to remain silent. This principle ensures the freedom of conscience and prevents citizens from being conscripted to serve as unwilling bullhorns for government communications. Likewise, it is a bedrock principle of First Amendment law—recently affirmed by the Supreme Court—that content-based restrictions of speech must survive the strictest scrutiny to pass constitutional muster.

Unfortunately, these rules don’t apply with the same force to regulations of “commercial speech,” which the Supreme Court has ruled need not meet the same rigorous standards of review as other types of speech. In a 1985 case called Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of Supreme Court of Ohio, the Court went further and created an additional narrow exception. Zauderer allowed courts to apply less rigorous scrutiny when analyzing the constitutionality of disclosures of “purely factual and uncontroversial information” when mandated in an effort to combat misleading commercial speech. The Zauderer standard also requires that any disclosures not be “unduly burdensome” and be “reasonably related to the State’s interest in preventing deception of consumers.”  

In ruling against CTIA, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit further eroded that already lax standard of judicial review. Instead of requiring Berkeley to show a need to combat consumer deception – and how the mandated disclosure provision alleviates that need – the Ninth Circuit skipped right over Zauderer to find that compelling speech content posed no constitutional issues because mandated disclosures need only be reasonably related to “non-trivial” government purposes. This dangerous dilution would allow government entities to compel a nearly unending amount of speech on any number of controversial topics, even if the compelled script was itself misleading.  

CTIA is now petitioning the Supreme Court to review that flawed decision. The Cato Institute, joined by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Cause of Action Institute, has filed an amicus brief supporting that petition.

This important area of law desperately needs clarification, particularly at a time when compelled-disclosure regimes have proliferated and some courts have distorted the already insufficient Zauderer standard beyond recognition. To remain faithful to the First Amendment and the Court’s jurisprudence on compelled speech and content-based speech regulations, courts should apply strict scrutiny – meaning the government needs a really good reason and can’t achieve its goal any other way – to review laws that force market participants to disparage their own products and participate in policy debates they wish to avoid.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take up CTIA v. City of Berkeley later this winter or spring.