Reference no: EM131272836
Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York
Supreme Court of the United States 447 U.S. 557 (1980)
Plaintiff Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corporation filed an action against Public Service Commission of New York to challenge the constitutionality of a regulation that completely banned promotional advertising by the utility but permitted "informational" ads-those designed to encourage shifting consumption from peak to nonpeak times. The regulation was upheld by the trial court. On appeal by the utility, the New York Court of Appeals sustained the regulation, concluding that governmental interests outweighed the limited constitutional value of the commercial speech at issue. The utility appealed.
The Commission's order [enforcing the regulation's advertising ban] restricts only commercial speech, that is, expression related solely to the economic interests of the speaker and its audience. The First Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, protects commercial speech from unwarranted governmental regulation. Commercial expression not only serves the economic interest of the speaker, but also assists consumers and furthers the societal interest in the fullest possible dissemination of information. In applying the First Amendment to this area, we have rejected the "highly paternalistic" view that government has complete power to suppress or regulate commercial speech. Even when advertising communicates only an incomplete version of the relevant facts, the First Amendment presumes that some accurate information is better than no information at all. Nevertheless, our decisions have recognized "the ‘common sense'distinction between speech proposing a commercial transaction, which occurs in an area traditionally subject to government regulation, and other varieties of speech."
The Constitution therefore accords a lesser protection to commercial speech than to other constitutionally guaranteed expression. The protection available for particular commercial expression turns on the nature both of the expression and of the governmental interests served by its regulation. Two features of commercial speech permit regulation of its content. First, commercial speakers have extensive knowledge of both the market and their products. Thus, they are well situated to evaluate the accuracy of their messages and the lawfulness of the underlying activity. In addition, commercial speech, the offspring of economic self-interest, is a hardy breed of expression that is not "particularly susceptible to being crushed by overbroad regulation."
If the communication is neither misleading nor related to unlawful activity, the government's power is more circumscribed. The State must assert a substantial interest to be achieved by restrictions on commercial speech. Moreover, the regulatory technique must be in proportion to that interest. The limitation on expression must be designed carefully to achieve the State's goal. Compliance with this requirement may be measured by two criteria. First, the restriction must directly advance the state interest involved; the regulation may not be sustained if it provides only ineffective or remote support for the government's purpose. Second, if the governmental interest could be served as well by a more limited restriction on commercial speech, the excessive restrictions cannot survive.
The second criterion recognizes that the First Amendment mandates that speech restrictions be "narrowly drawn." The regulatory technique may extend only as far as the interest it serves. The State cannot regulate speech that poses no danger to the asserted state interest, nor can it completely suppress information when narrower restrictions on expression would serve its interest as well. In commercial speech cases, then, a four-part analysis has developed. At the outset, we must determine whether the expression is protected by the First Amendment. For commercial speech to come within that provision, it at least must concern lawful activity and not be misleading. Next, we ask whether the asserted governmental interest is substantial. If both inquiries yield positive answers, we must determine whether the regulation directly advances the governmental interest asserted and whether it is not more extensive than is necessary to serve that interest.
The Commission does not claim that the expression at issue is inaccurate or relates to unlawful activity. Yet the New York Court of Appeals questioned whether Central Hudson's advertising is protected commercial speech. Because appellant holds a monopoly over the sale of electricity in its service area, the state court suggested that the Commission's order restricts no commercial speech of any worth.
In the absence of factors that would distort the decision to advertise, we may assume that the willingness of a business to promote its products justifies belief that consumers are interested in the advertising. Since no such extraordinary conditions have been identified in this case, appellant's monopoly position does not alter the First Amendment's protection for its commercial speech.
The Commission offers two state interests as justifications for the ban on promotional advertising. The first concerns energy conservation. Any increase in demand for electricity-during peak or off-peak periods-means greater consumption of energy. The Commission argues that the State's interest in conserving energy is sufficient to support suppression of advertising designed to increase consumption of electricity. In view of our country's dependence on energy resources beyond our control, no one can doubt the importance of energy conservation. Plainly, therefore, the state interest asserted is substantial.
We come finally to the critical inquiry in this case: whether the Commission's complete suppression of speech ordinarily protected by the First Amendment is no more extensive than necessary to further the State's interest in energy conservation. The Commission's order reaches all promotional advertising, regardless of the impact of the touted service on overall energy use. But the energy conservation rationale, as important as it is, cannot justify suppressing information about electric devices or services that would cause no net increase in total energy use. In addition, no showing has been made that a more limited restriction on the content of promotional advertising would not serve adequately the State's interests.
Appellant insists that but for the ban, it would advertise products and services that use energy efficiently. These include the "heat pump,"which both parties acknowledge to be a major improvement in electric heating, and the use of electric heat as a "backup"to solar and other heat sources. Although the Commission has questioned the efficiency of electric heating before this Court, neither the Commission's Policy Statement nor its order denying rehearing made findings on this issue. The Commission's order prevents appellant from promoting electric services that would reduce energy use by diverting demand from lessefficient sources, or that would consume roughly the same amount of energy as do alternative sources. In neither situation would the utility's advertising endanger conservation or mislead the public. To the extent that the Commission's order suppresses speech that in no way impairs the State's interest in energy conservation, the Commission's order violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments and must be invalidated.
The Commission also has not demonstrated that its interest in conservation cannot be protected adequately by more limited regulation of appellant's commercial expression. To further its policy of conservation, the Commission could attempt to restrict the format and content of Central Hudson's advertising. It might, for example, require that the advertisements include information about the relative efficiency and expense of the offered service, both under current conditions and for the foreseeable future
CRITICAL THINKING ABOUT THE LAW
In Case 5-4, the Court had to balance government interests in energy efficiency, as well as fair and efficient pricing, with the conflicting constitutional value of Central Hudson's right to free commercial speech. Having affirmed the validity of government's substantial interests in regulating the utility company, the Court sought to determine whether these interests could have been sufficiently served with more limited restrictions. Because this determination is of central importance to the Court's reversal of the earlier court's judgment, it will be the focus of the questions that follow.
1. What primary ethical norm is implicit in the legal requirement that regulations on commercial speech be of the most limited nature possible in carrying out the desired end of advancing the state's substantial interest?
Clue: Review the four primary ethical norms. You want to focus not on the government regulation but on the rationale for limits on that regulation.
2. What information missing from the Court's opinion must you, as a critical thinker, know before being entirely satisfied with the decision?
Clue: You want to focus on the issue about which the Public Service Commission and Central Hudson have conflicting viewpoints. What information would you want to know before accepting the soundness of the Court's judgment in resolving this conflict?