skip navigation
search

Florida Bar v. Went for It, Inc. (94-226), 515 U.S. 618 (1995).
Syllabus
Dissent
[ Kennedy ]
Opinion
[ O'Connor ]
HTML version
WordPerfect version
HTML version
WordPerfect version
HTML version
WordPerfect version

No. 94-226


FLORIDA BAR, PETITIONER v. WENT FOR IT, INC., and JOHN T. BLAKELY

on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit

[June 21, 1995]

Justice Kennedy , with whom Justice Stevens, Attorneys who communicate their willingness to assist potential clients are engaged in speech protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. That principle has been understood since Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977). The Court today undercuts this guarantee in an important class of cases and unsettles leading First Amendment precedents, at the expense of those victims most in need of legal assistance. With all respect for the Court, in my view its solicitude for the privacy of victims and its concern for our profession are misplaced and self defeating, even upon the Court's own premises.

I take it to be uncontroverted that when an accident results in death or injury, it is often urgent at once to investigate the occurrence, identify witnesses, and preserve evidence. Vital interests in speech and expression are, therefore, at stake when by law an attorney cannot direct a letter to the victim or the family explaining this simple fact and offering competent legal assistance. Meanwhile, represented and better informed parties, or parties who have been solicited in ways more sophisticated and indirect, may be at work. Indeed,

these parties, either themselves or by their attorneys, investigators, and adjusters, are free to contact the unrepresented persons to gather evidence or offer settlement. This scheme makes little sense. As is often true when the law makes little sense, it is not first principles but their interpretation and application that have gone awry.

Although I agree with the Court that the case can be resolved by following the three part inquiry we have identified to assess restrictions on commercial speech, Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Comm'n of N.Y., 447 U.S. 557, 566 (1980), a preliminary observation is in order. Speech has the capacity to convey complex substance, yielding various insights and interpretations depending upon the identity of the listener or the reader and the context of its transmission. It would oversimplify to say that what we consider here is commercial speech and nothing more, for in many instances the banned communications may be vital to the recipients' right to petition the courts for redress of grievances. The complex nature of expression is one reason why even so called commercial speech has become an essential part of the public discourse the First Amendment secures. See, e.g., Edenfield v. Fane, 507 U. S. __, __ [113 S. Ct. 1792, 1798] (1993). If our commercial speech rules are to control this case, then, it is imperative to apply them with exacting care and fidelity to our precedents, for what is at stake is the suppression of information and knowledge that transcends the financial self interests of the speaker.

As the Court notes, the first of the Central Hudson factors to be considered is whether the interest the State pursues in enacting the speech restriction is a substantial one. Ante, at 5. The State says two different interests meet this standard. The first is the interest-in protecting the personal privacy and tranquility" of the victim and his or her family. Brief for Petitioner 8. As the Court notes, that interest has recognition in our decisions as a general matter; but it does not follow that the privacy interest in the cases the majority cites is applicable here. The problem the Court confronts, and cannot overcome, is our recent decision in Shapero v. Kentucky Bar Assn., 486 U.S. 466 (1988). In assessing the importance of the interest in that solicitation case, we made an explicit distinction between direct in person solicitations and direct mail solicitations. Shapero, like this case, involved a direct mail solicitation, and there the State recited its fears of "overreaching and undue influence." Id., at 475. We found, however, no such dangers presented by direct mail advertising. We reasoned that "[a] letter, like a printed advertisement (but unlike a lawyer), can readily be put in a drawer to be considered later, ignored, or discarded." Id., at 475-476. We pointed out that "[t]he relevant inquiry is not whether there exist potential clients whose `condition' makes them susceptible to undue influence, but whether the mode of communication poses a serious danger that lawyers will exploit any such susceptibility." Id., at 474. In assessing the substantiality of the evils to be prevented, we concluded that "the mode of communication makes all the difference." Id., at 475. The direct mail in Shapero did not present the justification for regulation of speech presented in Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Assn., 436 U.S. 447 (1978) (a lawyer's direct, in person solicitation of personal injury business may be prohibited by the State). See also Edenfield, supra, (an accountant's direct, in person solicitation of accounting business did implicate a privacy interest, though not one permitting state suppression of speech when other factors were considered).

To avoid the controlling effect of Shapero in the case before us, the Court seeks to declare that a different privacy interest is implicated. As it sees the matter, the substantial concern is that victims or their families will be offended by receiving a solicitation during their grief and trauma. But we do not allow restrictions on speech to be justified on the ground that the expression might offend the listener. On the contrary, we have said that these "are classically not justifications validating the suppression of expression protected by the First Amendment." Carey v. Population Services International, 431 U.S. 678, 701 (1977). And in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of Supreme Court of Ohio, 471 U.S. 626 (1985), where we struck down a ban on attorney advertising, we held that "the mere possibility that some members of the population might find advertising . . . offensive cannot justify suppressing it. The same must hold true for advertising that some members of the bar might find beneath their dignity." Id., at 648.

We have applied this principle to direct mail cases as well as with respect to general advertising, noting that the right to use the mails is protected by the First Amendment. See Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., 463 U.S. 60, 76 (1983) (Rehnquist, J., concurring) (citing Blount v. Rizzi, 400 U.S. 410 (1971). In Bolger, we held that a statute designed to "shiel[d] recipients of mail from materials that they are likely to find offensive" furthered an interest of "little weight," noting that "we have consistently held that the fact that protected speech may be offensive to some does not justify its suppression." 463 U. S., at 71 (citing Carey, supra, at 701). It is only where an audience is captive that we will assure its protection from some offensive speech. See Consolidated Edison Co. of N.Y. v. Public Service Comm'n of N.Y., 447 U.S. 530, 542 (1980). Outside that context, "we have never held that the Government itself can shut off the flow of mailings to protect those recipients who might potentially be offended." Bolger, supra, at 72. The occupants of a household receiving mailings are not a captive audience, ibid., and the asserted interest in preventing their offense should be no more controlling here than in our prior cases. All the recipient of objectional mailings need do is to take "the `short, though regular, journey from mail box to trash can.' " Ibid. (citation omitted). As we have observed, this is "an acceptable burden, at least so far as the Constitution is concerned." Ibid. If these cases forbidding restrictions on speech that might be offensive are to be overruled, the Court should say so.

In the face of these difficulties of logic and precedent, the State and the opinion of the Court turn to a second interest: protecting the reputation and dignity of the legal profession. The argument is, it seems fair to say, that all are demeaned by the crass behavior of a few. The argument takes a further step in the amicus brief filed by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. There it is said that disrespect for the profession from this sort of solicitation (but presumably from no other sort of solicitation) results in lower jury verdicts. In a sense, of course, these arguments are circular. While disrespect will arise from an unethical or improper practice, the majority begs a most critical question by assuming that direct mail solicitations constitute such a practice. The fact is, however, that direct solicitation may serve vital purposes and promote the administration of justice, and to the extent the bar seeks to protect lawyers' reputations by preventing them from engaging in speech some deem offensive, the State is doing nothing more (as amicus the Association of Trial Lawyers of America is at least candid enough to admit) than manipulating the public's opinion by suppressing speech that informs us how the legal system works. The disrespect argument thus proceeds from the very assumption it tries to prove, which is to say that solicitations within 30 days serve no legitimate purpose. This, of course, is censorship pure and simple; and censorship is antithetical to the first principles of free expression.

Even were the interests asserted substantial, the regulation here fails the second part of the Central Hudson test, which requires that the dangers the State seeks to eliminate be real and that a speech restriction or ban advance that asserted State interest in a direct and material way. Edenfield, 507 U. S., at __ [113 S. Ct., at 1800]. The burden of demonstrating the reality of the asserted harm rests on the State. Ibid. Slight evidence in this regard does not mean there is sufficient evidence to support the claims. Here, what the State has offered falls well short of demonstrating that the harms it is trying to redress are real, let alone that the regulation directly and materially advances the State's interests. The parties and the Court have used the term "Summary of Record" to describe a document prepared by the Florida Bar, one of the adverse parties, and submitted to the District Court in this case. See ante, at 8. This document includes no actual surveys, few indications of sample size or selection procedures, no explanations of methodology, and no discussion of excluded results. There is no description of the statistical universe or scientific framework that permits any productive use of the information the so called Summary of Record contains. The majority describes this anecdotal matter as "noteworthy for its breadth and detail," ante, at 9, but when examined, it is noteworthy for its incompetence. The selective synopses of unvalidated studies deal, for the most part, with television advertising and phone book listings, and not direct mail solicitations. Although there may be issues common to various kinds of attorney advertising and solicitation, it is not clear what would follow from that limited premise, unless the Court means by its decision to call into question all forms of attorney advertising. The most generous reading of this document permits identification of 34 pages on which direct mail solicitation is arguably discussed. Of these, only two are even a synopsis of a study of the attitudes of Floridians towards such solicitations. The bulk of the remaining pages include comments by lawyers about direct mail (some of them favorable), excerpts from citizen complaints about such solicitation, and a few excerpts from newspaper articles on the topic. Our cases require something more than a few pages of self serving and unsupported statements by the State to demonstrate that a regulation directly and materially advances the elimination of a real harm when the State seeks to suppress truthful and nondeceptive speech. See, e.g., Edenfield, 507 U. S., at __ [113 S. Ct., at 1800-1801].

It is telling that the essential thrust of all the material adduced to justify the State's interest is devoted to the reputational concerns of the Bar. It is not at all clear that this regulation advances the interest of protecting persons who are suffering trauma and grief, and we are cited to no material in the record for that claim. Indeed, when asked at oral argument what a "typical injured plaintiff get[s] in the mail," the Bar's lawyer replied: "That's not in the record. . . and I don't know the answer to that question." Tr. of Oral Arg. 25. Having declared that the privacy interest is one both substantial and served by the regulation, the Court ought not to be excused from justifying its conclusion.

The insufficiency of the regulation to advance the State's interest is reinforced by the third inquiry necessary in this analysis. Were it appropriate to reach the third part of the Central Hudson test, it would be clear that the relationship between the Bar's interests and the means chosen to serve them is not a reasonable fit. The Bar's rule creates a flat ban that prohibits far more speech than necessary to serve the purported state interest. Even assuming that interest were legitimate, there is a wild disproportion between the harm supposed and the speech ban enforced. It is a disproportion the Court does not bother to discuss, but our speech jurisprudence requires that it do so. Central Hudson, 447 U. S., at 569-571; Board of Trustees of State University of N.Y. v. Fox, 492 U.S. 469, 480 (1989).

To begin with, the ban applies with respect to all accidental injuries, whatever their gravity. The Court's purported justification for the excess of regulation in this respect is the difficulty of drawing lines between severe and less serious injuries, see ante, at 14, but making such distinctions is not important in this analysis. Even were it significant, the Court's assertion is unconvincing. After all, the criminal law routinely distinguishes degrees of bodily harm, see, e.g., United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual §1B1.1, comment., n. 1(b), (h), (j) (Nov. 1994), and if that delineation is permissible and workable in the criminal context, it should not be "hard to imagine the contours of a regulation" that satisfies the reasonable fit requirement. Ante, at 14.

There is, moreover, simply no justification for assuming that in all or most cases an attorney's advice would be unwelcome or unnecessary when the survivors or the victim must at once begin assessing their legal and financial position in a rational manner. With regard to lesser injuries, there is little chance that for any period, much less 30 days, the victims will become distraught upon hearing from an attorney. It is, in fact, more likely a real risk that some victims might think no attorney will be interested enough to help them. It is at this precise time that sound legal advice may be necessary and most urgent.

Even as to more serious injuries, the State's argument fails, since it must be conceded that prompt legal representation is essential where death or injury results from accidents. The only seeming justification for the State's restriction is the one the Court itself offers, which is that attorneys can and do resort to other ways of communicating important legal information to potential clients. Quite aside from the latent protectionism for the established bar that the argument discloses, it fails for the more fundamental reason that it concedes the necessity for the very representation the attorneys solicit and the State seeks to ban. The accident victims who are prejudiced to vindicate the State's purported desire for more dignity in the legal profession will be the very persons who most need legal advice, for they are the victims who, because they lack education, linguistic ability, or familiarity with the legal system, are unable to seek out legal services. Cf. Trainmen v. Virginia ex rel. Virginia State Bar, 377 U.S. 1, 3-4 (1964).

The reasonableness of the State's chosen methods for redressing perceived evils can be evaluated, in part, by a commonsense consideration of other possible means of regulation that have not been tried. Here, the Court neglects the fact that this problem is largely self policing: Potential clients will not hire lawyers who offend them. And even if a person enters into a contract with an attorney and later regrets it, Florida, like some other States, allows clients to rescind certain contracts with attorneys within a stated time after they are executed. See, e.g., Rules Regulating the Florida Bar, Rule 4-1.5 (Statement of Client's Rights) (effective Jan. 1, 1993). The State's restriction deprives accident victims of information which may be critical to their right to make a claim for compensation for injuries. The telephone book and general advertisements may serve this purpose in part; but the direct solicitation ban will fall on those who most need legal representation: for those with minor injuries, the victims too ill informed to know an attorney may be interested in their cases; for those with serious injuries, the victims too ill informed to know that time is of the essence if counsel is to assemble evidence and warn them not to enter into settlement negotiations or evidentiary discussions with investigators for opposing parties. One survey reports that over a recent 5 year period, 68% of the American population consulted a lawyer. N. Y. Times, June 11, 1995, section 3, p. 1, col. 1. The use of modern communication methods in a timely way is essential if clients who make up this vast demand are to be advised and informed of all of their choices and rights in selecting an attorney. The very fact that some 280,000 direct mail solicitations are sent to accident victims and their survivors in Florida each year is some indication of the efficacy of this device. Nothing in the Court's opinion demonstrates that these efforts do not serve some beneficial role. A solicitation letter is not a contract. Nothing in the record shows that these communications do not at the least serve the purpose of informing the prospective client that he or she has a number of different attorneys from whom to choose, so that the decision to select counsel, after an interview with one or more interested attorneys, can be deliberate and informed. And if these communications reveal the social costs of the tort system as a whole, then efforts can be directed to reforming the operation of that system, not to suppressing information about how the system works. The Court's approach, however, does not seem to be the proper way to begin elevating the honor of the profession.

It is most ironic that, for the first time since Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, the Court now orders a major retreat from the constitutional guarantees for commercial speech in order to shield its own profession from public criticism. Obscuring the financial aspect of the legal profession from public discussion through direct mail solicitation, at the expense of the least sophisticated members of society, is not a laudable constitutional goal. There is no authority for the proposition that the Constitution permits the State to promote the public image of the legal profession by suppressing information about the profession's business aspects. If public respect for the profession erodes because solicitation distorts the idea of the law as most lawyers see it, it must be remembered that real progress begins with more rational speech, not less. I agree that if this amounts to mere "sermonizing," see Shapero, 486 U. S., at 490 (O'Connor, J., dissenting), the attempt may be futile. The guiding principle, however, is that full and rational discussion furthers sound regulation and necessary reform. The image of the profession cannot be enhanced without improving the substance of its practice. The objective of the profession is to ensure that "the ethical standards of lawyers are linked to the service and protection of clients." Ohralik, 436 U. S., at 461.

Today's opinion is a serious departure, not only from our prior decisions involving attorney advertising, but also from the principles that govern the transmission of commercial speech. The Court's opinion reflects a new found and illegitimate confidence that it, along with the Supreme Court of Florida, knows what is best for the Bar and its clients. Self assurance has always been the hallmark of a censor. That is why under the First Amendment the public, not the State, has the right and the power to decide what ideas and information are deserving of their adherence. "[T]he general rule is that the speaker and the audience, not the government, assess the value of the information presented." Edenfield, 507 U. S., at __ [113 S. Ct., at 1798]. By validating Florida's rule, today's majority is complicit in the Bar's censorship. For these reasons, I dissent from the opinion of the Court and from its judgment.