Commercial Speech

An important aspect of speech in any capitalist society is commercial speech. The protections afforded to corporations or businesses can be akin to individual protections in their depth. This is evident in Virginia State Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, a case ruling on pharmacists’ right to advertise their pricing on prescription drugs. What prompted this case was A Virginia law that barred drug advertisements in the name of maintaining the integrity of the profession. Though this law may seem strange, the ubiquitous presence of drug advertisements today seems to justify the restriction. The bombardment of prescription drug adverts is strangely normalized in our society while it is illegal in many other countries. As someone that has worked in a pharmacy and has seen the nightmare of privatized medicine, these restrictions seem to make a lot of sense to me. However, barring any access to the pricing information seems to be an unreasonable limitation for the consumer. Regardless, the Court ruled against the restrictive measure.

Writing for the Court, Justice Blackmun addressed the issue by focusing his concern on the free flow of information. Interestingly, much of the precedent for protecting commercial speech was derived from Bigelow v. Virginia, a case where the Court upheld commercial speech as an important facet of free speech. In Bigelow, the issue at hand was Virginia’s measures against the advertisement of abortion services. Jeffrey C. Bigelow, a newspaper editor in Virginia, had been fined for advertising for abortion services in New York, where abortion was then legalized. The Court reversed Bigelow’s charges and held that commercial speech was a protected form of speech. Justice Blackmun of course wrote the majority opinion in both Bigelow and Virginia State Pharmacy Board. In both decisions, his rationale relied on the need for consumers to be informed about services and products. In Bigelow, however, the element of protecting political views was involved as abortion services were at the center of the issue.

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