Threatened billboard ban Review ordered: High court takes skeptical view of limitations of commercial speech.

July 05, 1996

THE SUPREME COURT'S order for a lower court to review Baltimore's ban on billboards promoting cigarette smoking came as no surprise; in May, the court issued a similar order for the city's ban on liquor billboards in some city neighborhoods. In both cases, the review was prompted by the court's decision in a Rhode Island case, which included new guidelines for weighing the constitutionality of limitations on commercial speech.

In that decision, the Supreme Court threw out a 40-year-old Rhode Island law banning all public advertising of liquor prices. The state justified the ban as an attempt to reduce alcohol consumption by inhibiting competitive pricing. The guidelines put forward by the court in striking down the law look skeptically on attempts by government to place limits on advertising and other forms of commercial speech.

Even so, supporters of Baltimore's new laws are hopeful that they can meet constitutional muster. For one thing, the Rhode Island law constituted a blanket ban on advertising, whereas Baltimore's billboard bans leave open many other avenues for companies to get their message across.

But advertisers challenging the billboard bans maintain these laws do not directly address the city's stated goals -- underage drinking and smoking and neighborhood blight -- and, in any case, that they are not the least obtrusive means of accomplishing those ends.

Those are the competing arguments the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond will be wrestling with. Free speech is one of this country's bedrock principles, one that is essential for freedom to flourish. But the health of young people and the well-being of poor neighborhoods also demand judicial respect, within the bounds of constitutional principle.

Pub Date: 7/05/96

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