Lawyer Advertising – Manipulate This!

When it comes to advertising, lawyers are bound not only by laws and regulations that apply to all advertisers, but also by the rules set by the professional licensing authorities in each state in the United States, as well as by many “Bar” Associations (Bar as in Barrister, not barista or your local tavern). These authorities and associations often set more stringent advertising standards and rules, based on ethical guidelines and professional standards.

Florida has some of the most stringent restrictions on attorney advertising in the United States. For example, Florida’s rules prohibited ads that were “manipulative” (whatever that means) or that included “background sound other than instrumental music” – presumably to prevent the sounds of ambulance sirens or jail cell doors slamming.

The restrictiveness of attorney advertising, including Florida’s tough rules, has been the subject of criticism, as noted in a previous Wall Street Journal article.

Yesterday, a federal judge in Jacksonville, Fla., ruled that these restrictions are vague and violate the First Amendment rights of lawyers, and must go! The judge’s ruling noted that, “The term ‘manipulative’ is so vague that it fails to adequately put members of the Bar on notice of what types of advertisements are prohibited” – declaring the standard void. The judge also overturned the prohibition on background sounds, noting that such a rule violates the free speech rights of attorneys. Here is the entire Harrell v. Florida Bar decision [PDF] if you are interested.

In honor of the occasion, one clever individual decided to create a “lawyer ad” parody, which, by the way, has sounds previously banned by the Florida regulations. Enjoy.


Protection of Minors Doesn’t Trample Free Speech in Online Games

In 2005, California enacted a ban on the sale or rental of violent video games (defined as a game that depicts killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being) to minors. The stimulus for the law was the stated belief that violent videogames are likely to make minors become more aggressive and violent. The penalty for retailers who violate the ban? As much as $1,000 per violation.

As you might imagine, the legal challenge started almost immediately – from publishers, distributors and sellers; and today, in a 7–2 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling by an appeals court that held the California law unconstitutional. I believe (although I didn’t go back and check yet) that California now becomes the seventh state to have such a law struck down. Justice Scalia, in summarizing the decision, is reported to have said, “Our cases hold that minors are entitled to a significant degree of First Amendment protection. Government has no free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which they may be exposed"; and in his written opinion for the majority noted, "Even where the protection of children is the object, the constitutional limits on governmental action apply."

We will try to bring you more details once we analyze the 18-page opinion handed down today, but if you have questions, feel free to call me, Joseph I. ("Joe") Rosenbaum, or any of the Rimon attorneys with whom you regularly work.

Free Speech on the Internet – India Goes Schizophrenic

Unreasonable restraints on free speech? India? Well, you decide. According to an article published today in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, storm clouds are brewing over just how far the government should and can go in restricting free speech on the Internet. Indeed—just how ambiguous the regulations can be such that interpretation becomes a subjective problem, enforceable at the discretion of regulators.

Unfortunately, the new rules (referred to as “Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011”) stem from a 2008 amendment, widely supported by Internet service providers (I.T. Act 2008) to an Indian information technology statute first enacted in 2000. For a history of the Indian legislation, see Information Technology Act 2000 (ITA-2000).

The Amendment removed intermediary liability of Internet service providers, many of whom are represented by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, for any content created by third parties and for which the ISP played no active role in creating. While the removal of passive ISP intermediary liability is one of growing consistency in the international community, the regulations broadly empowering officials to curtail free speech on the web are not.

Growing trend, justified by security? Aberration spawned by immediate and local concerns? Abuse of power? Reasonable trade-off for protection of society? Ahh, but whose society? Where is the balance? Who decides?

Take a look at the regulations, then you decide. But if you need legal guidance or have questions about regulations that apply to the Internet—internationally, multi-nationally or domestically, in almost any part of the world—let us know. We are here to help.