Most everyone knows that the First Amendment restricts the government’s ability to limit commercial speech. Similarly, most everyone would probably think the First Amendment also restricts the government’s ability to compel commercial speech. But are there times when the government may compel commercial speech? Indeed it can in some circumstances, and the D.C. Circuit recently expanded those circumstances in American Meat Institute v. U.S. Department of Agriculture (AMI). AMI involved a trade association’s challenge to regulations requiring meat producers to include country-of-origin labels on their products. This decision is important to almost any company that is, or could be, subject to a regulatory mandate to disclose what the court calls “purely factual and uncontroversial information.”
Rehearing en banc a case decided in the government’s favor by a three-judge panel, the D.C. Circuit in AMI upheld the regulations, applying the test from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Zauderer upheld, against a First Amendment challenge, a state’s disciplinary action against an attorney whose advertisements had the potential to deceive consumers by failing to comply with state regulations mandating certain cost disclosures to prospective clients. Although the regulations concerning meat origins in AMI had nothing to do with countering consumer deception, the D.C. Circuit nonetheless applied Zauderer and thus extended its application beyond protection against consumer deception to the advancement of consumer edification.