44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island

517 U.S. 484 (1996)

Quick Summary

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44 Liquormart, Inc. and Peoples Super Liquor Stores (plaintiffs), challenged Rhode Island’s (defendant) statutory ban on alcohol price advertising as a violation of their First Amendment rights. The dispute centered on whether this ban infringed upon their freedom to provide accurate retail pricing information.

The Supreme Court concluded that the ban did not sufficiently promote temperance and was unnecessarily restrictive, thereby violating the First Amendment without being justified by the Twenty-first Amendment.

Facts of the Case

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In a move to regulate alcohol consumption, Rhode Island (defendant) enacted a statute barring the advertisement of retail liquor prices except at the point of sale. 44 Liquormart (plaintiff) and Peoples Super Liquor Stores (plaintiff), both licensed alcohol retailers, challenged this statute as a violation of their First Amendment rights, asserting that the law infringed upon their freedom of speech by preventing them from advertising accurate retail prices.

The plaintiffs contended that the state’s ban on such advertisements did not effectively promote temperance and was more extensive than necessary.

The enforcement of Rhode Island’s statute led to a fine being imposed on 44 Liquormart for an advertisement deemed to imply low liquor prices, despite not explicitly stating them. This action catalyzed the lawsuit, which sought to affirm the constitutional right to provide the public with truthful information about product pricing.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. A federal district court initially ruled the statute unconstitutional, siding with the plaintiffs.
  2. The Court of Appeals reversed this decision, upholding the statute and citing the Twenty-first Amendment for added validity.
  3. The plaintiffs appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which granted certiorari to resolve the First Amendment implications and the relevance of the Twenty-first Amendment.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether Rhode Island’s prohibition on the advertisement of retail liquor prices violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

Rule of Law

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The First Amendment’s protection against laws abridging freedom of speech extends to truthful and nonmisleading commercial speech about lawful products and services. The Twenty-first Amendment, which grants states control over alcohol regulation, does not diminish First Amendment obligations.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The Supreme Court examined whether Rhode Island’s advertising ban directly advanced the state’s interest in promoting temperance and if it was more extensive than necessary for that purpose. The Court found that the State had not provided sufficient evidence that the ban significantly reduced alcohol consumption.

Furthermore, it determined that alternative regulatory methods could promote temperance without restricting speech. The Court concluded that the advertising ban was an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech and was not justified by the Twenty-first Amendment.

Justices offered various concurring views, emphasizing historical practices, commercial speech doctrine, and the illegitimacy of government interests in keeping consumers ignorant. However, the core agreement was that Rhode Island’s total prohibition on truthful price advertising was incompatible with First Amendment protections.


Conclusion Icon

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, declaring Rhode Island’s complete ban on price advertising invalid under the First Amendment. The ban was found to neither directly advance the state’s interest in promoting temperance nor be necessary to serve that interest.

Key Takeaways

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  1. The First Amendment encompasses protection for truthful and nonmisleading commercial speech regarding lawful products and services.
  2. State regulations cannot completely suppress commercial speech to pursue a policy unrelated to consumer protection without violating the First Amendment.
  3. The Twenty-first Amendment does not supersede or diminish protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What is the legal threshold for determining that commercial speech is protected under the First Amendment?

The legal threshold for determining whether commercial speech is protected under the First Amendment requires that the speech be truthful and nonmisleading about lawful products or services. If these criteria are met, the government must justify its regulation under a substantial government interest, demonstrating that the regulation directly advances that interest and is not more extensive than necessary.

  • For example: A law requiring calorie counts on menus may be upheld if it aims to inform consumers and has a reasonable fit with public health objectives without being overly burdensome.

How does the Twenty-first Amendment interact with the First Amendment regarding state regulations on alcohol?

The Twenty-first Amendment grants states control over the transportation and sale of alcohol within their territory, but it does not exempt states from First Amendment requirements. As a result, state alcohol regulations must still comply with free speech principles and cannot unnecessarily restrict advertising or other speech about alcohol without showing that it directly advances a significant state interest.

  • For example: A state could regulate signage size at liquor stores for traffic safety reasons but couldn’t ban factual information about alcohol content unless necessary to address a specific public health or safety concern.

What forms of evidence are required to uphold restrictions on commercial speech aimed at promoting state interests?

To uphold restrictions on commercial speech, the state must provide substantial evidence demonstrating that restricting the speech will advance its interest, such as public health or safety. This includes showing that the restriction will significantly impact the targeted behavior or outcomes. The state also needs to prove its regulation is narrowly tailored—meaning there are no less restrictive alternatives to achieving the same goal.

  • For example: If a city enacts a ban on advertising sugary drinks near schools to combat childhood obesity, it must show evidence that such ads influence children’s consumption patterns and that other measures wouldn’t suffice.


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