BOSTON — Government efforts to limit advertising for liquor - and by implication other potentially harmful but legal products such as tobacco - hit a Supreme Court snag yesterday.
In a splintered decision that could set back President Clinton's proposals to limit cigarette advertising on T-shirts and at sports events, the high court found that a Rhode Island ban on liquor-price advertising in the state was an abridgement of commercial free speech. It did so despite arguments by Rhode Island officials that alcohol had a long history of negative social effects in the state, and that at least 11 other states have similar bans on advertising the cost of liquor.
The case, 44 Liquormart Inc. v. Rhode Island, is considered the most important First Amendment free-speech case of the term. But the ruling yesterday is not expected to have any implications for broader free-speech rights, such as political or religious speech, which have much tougher standards of regulation.
The case resulted from a law dating to 1956 in Rhode Island that banned liquor prices in newspapers and other advertising mediums, even to the exclusion of using the word "sale." The ban extended to media in other adjoining states that publish or broadcast into Rhode Island.
Lawyers for the state argued before the high court last Nov. 1 that by suppressing the public knowledge of liquor prices, limiting it to the discovery of the price only on the bottle in the store, the cost of liquor would rise so high that residents would balk at buying it. The resulting reduction of consumption is a public good and falls within a state's general authority to promote public health and safety by reducing for example, drunk driving, the lawyers stated.
But Rhode Island lawyers were able to present their case only as a kind of economic and public-good theory. Surveys and studies brought by both sides before the nine justices showed disagreement over whether the ban on ads actually reduced the purchase of alcohol.
Lawyers for Liquormart argued the state could not ban speech about a product it does not ban.
THE Supreme Court yesterday took, therefore, the higher free-speech ground, and struck down the ban. Justice John Paul Stevens said the Rhode Island law "has failed to carry its heavy burden of justifying its complete ban on price advertising."
Whether the court decision will limit Clinton administration proposals to ban tobacco ads near schools and to regulate the manner in which cigarettes are presented, is still unclear. Legal scholars point out that price advertising exists in a special category. Prices are regarded as factual information, telling consumers only what and how much a product costs. Hence, limiting the state's power to regulate prices does not necessarily limit the Food and Drug Administration's efforts to curb tobacco ads that it claims are targeted at teenagers.
Yet tobacco company lawyers are expected to vigorously employ yesterday's 44 Liquormart ruling to prohibit federal regulations on their products.
In other decisions yesterday, the Supreme Court:
*Denied a bid by Florida to force the federal government to improve immigration enforcement or repay the state's cost of providing social services to illegal aliens. Five other states - New York, California, Arizona, Texas, and New Jersey - have had similar lawsuits thrown out by federal judges.
*Created tougher standards for criminal defendants who accuse federal prosecutors of prosecuting them because of their race. Five black Californians accused federal authorities of selectively prosecuting blacks in crack-cocaine cases. Ruling 8-to-1, the court said defendants with race-bias claims must show that people of other races were not prosecuted for the same crime. Laws against race-bias date to the 19th century and were intended to protect the proprietors of Chinese laundries.
*Rejected a hearing for Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski on whether news leaks have so poisoned public opinion that a fair trial is impossible.
*Broadened the power of labor unions to file lawsuits on their members' behalf against companies that do not give the legally required notice of plant closings or mass layoffs. The unanimous ruling reinstates a lawsuit over the closing of a Missouri shoe plant.
*Let stand a decision forbidding the city of Edmond, Okla., to display a Christian cross on its official seal. The justices left intact a federal appeals court ruling that said the city's use of that symbol violated the constitutionally required separation of church and state.