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Supreme Court taps into spirit of the law on alcohol price ads (44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island)

Quimbee 44 Liquormart v. Rhode Island

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The State of Rhode Island passed a set of laws to prohibit price advertising for alcoholic beverages. The state’s theory was that the ban would reduce price competition, which would result in higher alcoholic-beverage prices. This, in turn, would achieve the state’s ultimate goal of reducing alcohol consumption.

An alcohol retailer, 44 Liquormart, Inc., ran an advertisement touting its low prices. Rhode Island’s alcohol administrator concluded that 44 Liquormart violated the law, and 44 Liquormart sued.

The question of whether a state may constitutionally ban truthful, non-misleading commercial speech was taken up by the United States Supreme Court in 44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island, 517 U.S. 484 (1996).

The Court unanimously held the ban unconstitutional, but the justices’ reasoning was far from unified. Seven of the justices looked to the four-part test laid out in Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corp. v. Public Svc. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557 (1980). Meanwhile, the concurring justices disagreed about whether heightened scrutiny applied or whether the Court should have applied the Central Hudson test at all.

One thing is clear, though: outright bans on truthful, non-misleading commercial speech are unlikely to survive a constitutional challenge.



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