Backgrounder

“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

For over 20 years, the Institute for Justice has litigated across the country defending the freedom of speech. During that time, it has secured major victories for First Amendment rights in courts ranging from state trial courts to the U.S. Supreme Court.

There is a simple theme throughout all of IJ’s First Amendment cases: Under the First Amendment, the value of speech is decided by speakers and listeners, not the government. IJ rejects interpretations of the First Amendment that would give some categories of speech favored protection over other categories. Instead, IJ promotes a rule of law that allows speakers and listeners to exchange information freely on the topics that matter most to them. This belief has made IJ the nation’s leading advocate for categories of speech that courts have long neglected, including commercial speech, occupational speech and grassroots political advocacy.

State and federal courts have long treated commercial speech as inferior to political speech, and they have upheld regulations of commercial speech that would never pass muster in the political realm. But this second-class status has no basis in the text of the First Amendment.

Free markets depend on the free flow of information. Whether it’s Dennis Ballen posting signs that direct hungry commuters to his fresh-baked bagels in Washington state or Texas interior designer Vickee Byrum letting her customers know what services she offers, IJ’s cases demonstrate that entrepreneurs and consumers both benefit when commercial speech remains free.

IJ has also litigated groundbreaking cases in defense of occupational speech. In this modern, information-based economy, an increasing number of people earn their living by speaking. These people—including everyone from tour guides to business consultants—are paid, not for any goods they produce, but for the information or advice they provide.

Surprisingly, the U.S. Supreme Court has never squarely addressed the constitutional status of occupational speech. Its silence has led many lower courts to conclude, in conflict with basic First Amendment principles, that occupational speech isn’t protected at all. Combined with the explosive growth of occupational licensing, this dangerous trend has emboldened state licensing boards in their attempts to control speech on everything from diet and parenting to pet care and even to history.

The Institute for Justice is working to change that. IJ’s cutting-edge legal theories make clear that occupational speech is entitled to full First Amendment protection, and its cases illustrate how valuable such speech is in the day-to-day lives of Americans. Whether an individual is a parent seeking advice from newspaper columnist John Rosemond on how best to raise one’s children, a pet owner seeking advice from veterinarian Dr. Ron Hines on the care of the family dog, or simply a tourist looking to be entertained and informed by Tonia Edwards and Bill Main on a historical tour, Americans have a right to seek out advice or information on the topics they care about, and those who provide that advice or information are entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment.

Finally, IJ has been at the forefront of the fight against laws that hamstring political speech by ordinary citizens and that entrench political insiders from competition from grassroots political advocacy. Although most commentators agree that political speech is at the very core of what the First Amendment was intended to protect, today there are burdensome campaign finance laws and restrictions on grassroots lobbying that stifle civic involvement and political debate.

These laws fall hardest on political novices, who can become so tangled up in the red tape that they decide that political speech simply isn’t worth the effort. Karen Sampson and her neighbors shouldn’t have had to hire lawyers or accountants to deal with a bewildering maze of laws before they could safely speak out on a Colorado ballot initiative. In America, if you want to talk about politics, the only thing you should need is an opinion.

That simple message, along with IJ’s consistent, principled advocacy, has allowed IJ to secure major victories that have changed the face of American elections. IJ litigated and won before the U.S. Supreme Court in Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett. IJ also secured a victory before the District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in SpeechNow.org v. FEC, which the Congressional Research Service has described as representing one of “the most fundamental changes to campaign finance law in decades.”

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