July 23rd, 2007

NY Advertising Rules Found Unconstitutional By Federal Judge

Breaking news from Public Citizen, which brought a suit to have New York’s new attorney advertising rules held unconstitutional:


New Lawyer Advertising Rules in New York Violate Free Speech, Federal Court Rules

Public Citizen Wins Injunction Against Unconstitutional Rules

WASHINGTON, D.C. – New rules governing lawyer advertising that took effect in New York on Feb. 1 cannot be enforced because they violate the First Amendment right to free speech, according to a ruling issued today by a federal court in New York.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York ruled in favor of Public Citizen’s request for an injunction against many of the new rules. The organization represented its members and attorney James L. Alexander and his law firm, Alexander & Catalano. The New York firm was forced to change its advertisements to comply with the more restrictive rules.

The new guidelines were part of a revision of the rules contained in New York’s Code of Professional Responsibility for lawyers, which is designed to protect consumers by prohibiting false and misleading lawyer advertisements. Public Citizen contended in its lawsuit that the rules’ broad language unconstitutionally prohibited truthful communication of information about legal services to New York consumers. The court heard oral argument on June 18.

In a victory for First Amendment rights, the court permanently enjoined enforcement of most of the challenged rules against attorney advertising, including rules against attention-getting techniques, the use of nicknames and mottos, the use of client testimonials, the portrayal of judges and the use of Internet pop-up ads.

“The New York rules went too far in imposing burdensome restrictions on legal free speech that do not protect consumers,” said Greg Beck, an attorney for Public Citizen who litigated the case. “The court rightly recognized that the First Amendment prevents states from arbitrarily restricting advertising just because some may find it distasteful.”

In today’s ruling, the court held that the advertising at issue in the case was a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, and it categorically rejected New York’s argument that advertising considered by the state to be trivial or irrelevant was not covered by free speech rights. It noted that the state had not produced any evidence that its restrictions on speech were necessary to protect consumers and found that the prohibitions were much broader than necessary to accomplish the state’s claimed objectives.

Public Citizen also challenged the rules’ application to non-commercial speech, such as offers by lawyers to represent clients without a fee in civil rights cases. And in what amounted to another victory for free speech, the court construed the challenged amendments not to apply to nonprofit attorneys.

“The main beneficiaries of this decision are New York consumers,” Beck said. “Truthful advertising promotes healthy competition between lawyers and allows the public to learn about their rights and available legal services.”

To read the decision, visit http://www.citizen.org/documents/alexanderorder.pdf.

To read Public Citizen’s lawsuit and other materials in the case, visit http://www.citizen.org/litigation/forms/cases/CaseDetails.cfm?cID=358.

To read more about this issue, visit the Consumer Law & Policy Blog, co-sponsored by Public Citizen’s Consumer Justice Project, at http://pubcit.typepad.com/clpblog/advertising/index.html.


My own couple of thoughts:
The state briefs were very weak, and it comes as no surprise that those portions of the new advertising rules that dealt with the content of the advertisements were struck down. It should be noted, however, that the 30-day rule was upheld, prohibiting solicitations within 30 days of a mass tort. (Edit: Links to many of my pre-decision comments can be found off the first link of this post.)

The court had an interesting footnote at the end of the opinion. Why this was buried in a footnote, however, is beyond me:

In sum, the Court notes that it is altogether appropriate for the Appellate Division of the State of New York, having been charged by law with the responsibility of overseeing the professional conduct of attorneys admitted to practice before the courts of New York, to be concerned with the issue of attorney advertising. Without question there has been a proliferation of tasteless, and at times obnoxious, methods of attorney advertising in recent years. New technology and an increase in the types of media available for advertising have exacerbated this problem and made it more ubiquitous. As a result, among other things, the public perception of he legal profession has been greatly diminished. Although the Court finds it commendable that the Appellate Division of the State of New York and the disciplinary committees that function on its behalf pursue ways to regulate the manner and means by which attorneys who choose to advertise may do so, they must be mindful of the protections such advertising has been afforded and take the necessary steps to see that the regulation of such advertising is accomplished in a manner consistent with established First Amendment jurisprudence.


2nd Addendum:

More blogs/news on the subject:


May 29th, 2007

New York Attorney Advertising Rules – Update

According to Greg Beck of Public Citizen, they have filed their responsive brief on behalf of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit regarding New York’s new advertising rules for attorneys. Initial briefs can be found here (along with other links) from my update last week. The Public Citizen response can be found here: ResponseMemorandum.pdf (There was no responsive brief from the State.)

The central argument of the plaintiffs is that restrictions on commercial speech cannot be upheld without evidence that the restrictions alleviate real dangers, and that less restrictive options are not available.

In the past, I have discussed the vagueness of some of the rules with respect to New York attorney websites, so I found this particular piece of the response interesting:

The rules do not define a “technique[] to obtain attention” or explain what sorts of techniques are “relevan[t] to the selection of counsel.” Nor do they provide any guidance as to what lawyer characteristics are deemed to be “unrelated to legal competence” or what sorts of statements “impl[y] an ability to obtain results in a matter.” The rules, by their plain language, are so broad in scope as to cover essentially every advertisement ever used by an attorney beyond a business card, letterhead, or resume. Because all advertising will potentially be banned, bar authorities will be able to pursue enforcement against any attorneys whose advertisements they find personally distasteful, while ignoring most other ads. Unfettered discretion to distinguish among different speakers invites arbitrary enforcement and inevitably chills free speech rights. Moreover, in the absence of clear guidelines, attorneys will not know how to comply.

I still don’t know the answer to this question I posed on January 24, 2007: Is My Family Photograph An Ethical Violation in New York?


May 22nd, 2007

New York Advertising Rules – Update on Lawsuit

The trial has been cancelled for the lawsuit started over New York’s new attorney advertising rules that went into effect on June 1, 2007. According to Greg Beck, who has been litigating this matter for Public Citizen:

We had a trial scheduled on June 18, but since then we agreed that there were no disputed facts and cross moved for summary judgment. We have oral argument on June 18 instead of trial. We also have our [preliminary injunction] motion still pending, and there’s a good chance the judge will at least rule on that, if not on the summary judgment motion, on June 18th….

Opening briefs are attached along with stipulated facts. Response briefs are due Friday.

Prior posts on the subject can be found here:

Addendum 5/29/07: A responsive brief by Public Citizen has now been posted here.


April 16th, 2007

New York Attorney Advertising Suit To Go To Trial

After oral argument on Friday, Northern District Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr., sitting in Syracuse, ruled against the New York Attorney General’s motion to dismiss this First Amendment lawsuit. He set June 18 for the beginning of a trial on the constitutionality of the state’s new guidelines on attorney advertising. Public Citizen brought the action on behalf of itself and an upstate law firm that advertises heavily.

(hat tip to Andrew Bluestone, New York Attorney Malpractice Blog)

For more on the issue, including copies of the briefs:


April 4th, 2007

New York Attorney Advertising Lawsuit — Reply Brief

The reply brief was filed regarding the lawsuit challenging New York’s new advertising rules for attorneys. A copy of the brief by Public Citizen is here:Reply.pdf

I previously covered the opposition brief filed by New York’s Attorney General here: New York Responds to Lawsuit Challenging New Attorney Advertising Rules — By Banning Humor

The issue I had written on was the vagueness of the rules, and that even a simple family photograph could be viewed as a violation, and I had remarked that the State had failed to address the issue of vagueness. This is how Public Citizen responded:

Defendants Do Not Dispute That the Rules Are Unconstitutionally Vague and Thus Invite Arbitrary Enforcement.

Defendants do not respond to plaintiffs’ argument that the rules are too vague to give adequate guidance to those seeking to avoid discipline and to prevent arbitrary enforcement. See Pls.’ Mem. at 15-17. As explained in plaintiffs’ opening memorandum, the rules do not define a “technique[] to obtain attention” or explain what sorts of techniques are “relevan[t] to the selection of counsel.” Id. Nor do they provide any guidance as to what lawyer characteristics are deemed to be “unrelated to legal competence” or what sorts of statements “impl[y] an ability to obtain results in a matter.” The vagueness of the rules creates a risk of self-censorship and arbitrary enforcement that cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment. Id. For this independent reason, the validity of which defendants effectively acknowledge, the amended rules are unconstitutional.

Additional links are at my prior posts linked above.