The latest development in a lengthy legal challenge to advertising restrictions in Missouri’s tied house laws and regulations raises practical economic issues for the alcohol beverage industry and significant legal and policy issues for legislators and regulators at all levels of government. On June 28, Judge Douglas Harpool of the US District Court for the Western District of Missouri filed a decision in Missouri Broadcasters Association vs. Dorothy Taylor. The Missouri Broadcasters Association (MBA) is a trade association representing media outlets. Two licensed Missouri retailers were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Ms. Dorothy Taylor is the Supervisor of the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (DATC).
The basic issue in the case is whether several Missouri alcohol beverage advertising restrictions violate the plaintiffs’ commercial speech rights protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
The June District Court decision follows a bench trial held in February 2018. The trial occurred as the result of prior legal proceedings culminating in a 2017 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which found that the MBA’s amended complaint “plausibly demonstrates that the challenged provisions [of Missouri’s tied house law] do not directly advance the government’s asserted substantial interest, are more extensive than necessary and unconstitutionally compel speech and association.”
Perhaps the most important Missouri law challenged in this litigation is an exception in the tied house laws that authorizes a manufacturer to pay for advertising that lists “two or more affiliated retail businesses selling its products” subject to four conditions:
(a) The advertisement shall not contain the retail price of the product;
(b) The listing of the retail businesses shall be the only reference to such retail businesses in the advertisement;
(c) The listing of the retail businesses shall be relatively inconspicuous in relation to the advertisement as a whole; and
(d) The advertisement shall not refer only to one retail business or only to a retail business controlled directly or indirectly by the same retail business.
This language may be familiar to many practitioners and regulators as a nearly identical provision appears in the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) tied house regulations. Laws and regulations of several states include similar express exceptions and TTB regulations are incorporated by reference in the trade practices regulations of other states. Innumerable TTB and state tied house laws and regulations restrict advertising in similar ways and may be invalidated if the analysis in Missouri Broadcasters is applied by other courts and ultimately upheld by federal appellate courts.
Other Missouri laws and regulations that were successfully challenged by MBA in the trial court prohibit (a) media advertising of price discounts, (b) beer and wine coupons, (c) outdoor advertising of discounts by retailers and (d) below cost advertising.
Unlike many cases based solely on theoretical legal arguments and the text of laws and regulations, the trial in the Missouri case resulted in a wide-ranging inquiry that included expert witnesses on advertising and the level of effort invested by the Missouri DATC in enforcing the challenged laws and regulations. The court’s decision suggests that the state struggled to provide any credible evidence that the challenged laws “directly reduce overconsumption of alcohol and underage drinking.”
The court found that the plaintiffs’ expert testimony provided substantial evidence “that there is in fact no demonstrative relationship between media advertising of alcohol and overall consumption rates of underage drinking…The State failed to present any evidence contradicting the testimony, empirical studies, and statistical analysis relied on by the Plaintiffs’ expert.”
The court agreed with the plaintiffs and cited language from the 8th Circuit decision that “the multiple inconsistencies within the regulations poke obvious holes in any potential advancement” of the state’s interest, “to the point the regulations do not advance the interest at all.” This finding is a threat to dozens of federal and state alcohol beverage laws that are riddled with exceptions that allow alcohol beverage advertising in one context and expressly prohibit the same advertising in another context (e.g., prohibiting exterior signs and permitting indoor signs).
Because the challenged Missouri laws restrict commercial speech rights protected by the First Amendment, the court also awarded legal fees to MBA and the retailer plaintiffs.
Advertising can be removed from the “marble cake” of state and federal tied house restrictions without dire consequences for regulators. If the reasoning in Missouri Broadcasters survives, the most significant effects will occur in intra-industry negotiations where parties will determine how advertising costs and activities are apportioned across the three-tier system.
Before proclaiming the death of the three-tier system, hundreds of state licensing and tied house laws have nothing to do with advertising. Prohibitions on ownership interests in more than one tier of the alcohol beverage industry are not affected by the recent decision along with substantial restrictions on industry trade practices other than advertising.
Finally, the reasoning in Missouri Broadcasters may have to survive another appeal and must be adopted by other courts to broadly affect house restrictions on advertising throughout the United States. Perhaps a state (or more likely a state with support from interested industry members) will develop credible evidence to support similar laws in other jurisdictions. For example, California aggressively defended analogous laws and regulations, which were ultimately upheld last year by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.