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High Court To Decide Whether Liquor Stores Can Advertise Prices in R.I.

May 1, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court agreed today to decide whether states may ban price advertising for liquor.

The justices said they will review a free-speech challenge to Rhode Island’s ban, enforced since 1956 as an attempt to reduce consumption of alcoholic beverages.

The price ban is being attacked by a Johnston, R.I., liquor store, 44 Liquormart Inc., and by Peoples Super Liquor Stores Inc., which sells liquor to Rhode Island residents from its two Massachusetts stores.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban last year, ruling that it is a constitutionally permissible limitation on commercial speech.

Today’s action follows by two weeks a high court decision that struck down a federal law that banned brewers from putting alcohol-content information on the labels of beer cans and bottles.

The court said the 1935 federal law, aimed a preventing ``strength wars″ among beer manufacturers, violated free-speech rights.

In other actions today, the court:

_ Let stand rulings that forced a Michigan high school to take down a portrait of Jesus Christ that had been displayed on a hallway wall for 30 years.

_ Refused to reinstate a $1.2 million award won, and then lost, by two Columbia, Mo., residents who say police did not adequately protect their family from domestic violence.

Rhode Island law allows advertising for alcoholic beverages, but requires publishers to exclude any mention of prices, or even the word ``sale.″

The prohibition was challenged after 44 Liquormart was informed in 1991 that it was in violation of the state law.

A federal trial judge ruled that the ban violated free-speech rights, but the 1st Circuit court reversed that ruling.

The appeals court relied heavily on a 1980 Supreme Court decision that set up a standard for judging the constitutionality of limits on commercial speech, which is not as protected as non-commercial forms of expression.

The 1980 decision said commercial speech that is not misleading and concerns a legal activity may be limited only if government has a substantial interest, the limitation directly advances that interest, and it is not more extensive than necessary.

The appeals court said the liquor-regulatory authority granted to the states by the Constitution’s 21st Amendment, which ended Prohibition, adds to the 1982 standard a ``presumption in favor of the validity of the state regulation in this area.″

In the appeal acted on today, lawyers for 44 Liquormart and Peoples argued that the 1st Circuit court’s ruling lets Rhode Island use the 21st Amendment to topple First Amendment rights.

The Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech.

``Rhode Island is attempting to ban speech that occurs off the licensed premises, and does no more than convey helpful, accurate information about a lawful product,″ the appeal said.

The appeal also contended that the state’s interest _ curbing alcoholic consumption _ isn’t served by the ban on price advertising. ``Indeed, per capita consumption in Rhode Island is higher than in some states that permit price advertising,″ the justices were told.

Peoples’ stores in Fairhaven and New Bedford, Mass., sell liquor to Rhode Island residents. The stores are allowed to publish price advertising in Massachusetts, but Rhode Island publishers are barred by the state law from accepting such advertising.

The appeal was supported in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted by the Association of National Advertisers. But state officials in Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Liquor Stores Association urged the court to reject the appeal.

The case is 44 Liquormart vs. Rhode Island, 94-1140.

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