The Evolution of First Amendment Protection for Compelled Commercial Speech
This essay in an exercise in responding to the question “how did we get here” with respect to a contest contemporary issue in First Amendment jurisprudence. As late as the early 1970s no one would have thought that compelling speakers in the marketplace to propose a commercial transaction would have raised any First Amendment issues, because no one considered commercial speech to merit any protection under the First Amendment. In the New Deal period regulation of economic markets became relatively common, and was challenged on a number of constitutional grounds, the challenges typically invoking commerce power, federalism, or delegation arguments. No one suggested that efforts on the part of states to affect the content of advertisements for commercial products raised free speech concerns. Moreover, advertising itself was regarded as a suspect activity, inclined to create false or misleading expectations among consumers, and was thought eminently suitable for regulation.
Thus in order to imagine cases such as United States v. United Foods, where in 2001 a majority of the Court struck down, on First Amendment grounds, a federal program assessing handlers of fresh mushrooms with fees to promote generic mushroom sales, one has to reckon with a sea change in attitudes toward speech, commercial speech, and commercial advertising between the early 1940s and the present. This essay, emphasizing developments in First Amendment cases and commentary, as well as changing cultural attitudes, attempts to trace that sea change.