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Eighth Circuit Strikes Down Multiple Missouri Alcohol Beverage Advertising Laws

In another blow to the constitutionality of alcohol beverage laws, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit struck down on First Amendment grounds a number of Missouri’s alcohol beverage advertising laws on the basis that Missouri failed to meets it burden to demonstrate that such laws both advanced the state’s substantial interest and were narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.

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District Court Decision Rejects Commerce Clause Challenge to Missouri’s Retailer Wine Shipping Laws

On Friday, March 29, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri handed down its decision in Sarasota Wine Market v. Parson, No. 4:17CV2792. The decision upholds Missouri’s laws permitting in-state retailers to sell and deliver directly to consumers’ homes, but withholding that same privilege to out-of-state retailers. Plaintiffs had challenged the Missouri statutes under both the so-called “dormant” Commerce Clause and the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Federal Constitution.

The decision is not surprising, as Missouri lies within the jurisdiction of the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The Eighth Circuit, in a challenge to a residency requirement in a case entitled Southern Wine & Spirits v. Division of Alc. & Tobacco Control (2013), previously held that state laws regulating retailers and wholesalers are immune from dormant Commerce Clause scrutiny under the 21st Amendment. The Sarasota Wine Market decision relies heavily on Southern Wine & Spirits in rejecting the plaintiffs’ dormant Commerce Clause challenge. And, the court reasoned that because the right to engage in the wine trade is subject to the limitations of the 21st Amendment, the Privileges and Immunities Clause is not implicated.

Whether the 21st Amendment insulates state laws regulating retailers and wholesalers from dormant Commerce Clause scrutiny is currently pending before the Supreme Court in the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association v. Blair (f/n/a Byrd) case. Thus, the Sarasota Wine Market opinion faces almost-certain reversal or affirmance, depending on how the Supreme Court rules in Blair. In the meantime, the decision serves to underscore the stakes of the question currently pending before the Supreme Court.




Eighth Circuit Hints at Unconstitutionality of Missouri Restrictions on Alcohol Advertising

Last week, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit weighed in on the legality of restrictions on alcohol advertising under the First Amendment, issuing an opinion in Missouri Broadcasters Association v. Lacy that could eventually broaden free speech protections for alcohol beverage advertisements. After the lower court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss and plaintiffs appealed, the Eighth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal, finding that plaintiffs’ claim alleging the unconstitutionality of a Missouri statute and two regulations should be heard.

The case concerned three Missouri provisions – two regulations and a statute – that restrict the advertising of alcohol beverages:

  1. a regulation prohibiting retailers from advertising price discounts outside of the licensed premises (but allowing the advertising of discounts by using generic descriptions (e.g., “Happy Hour”), as well as the advertising of specific discounts within the licensed premises);
  2. a regulation prohibiting retailers from advertising prices below cost; and
  3. a statute requiring manufacturers and wholesalers choosing to a list a retailer in an advertisement to exclude the retail price of the product from the advertisement, list multiple unaffiliated retailers and make the listing relatively inconspicuous.

Plaintiffs – a broadcasting industry group, radio station operator, winery and retailer – sued Missouri’s supervisor of liquor control and attorney general, alleging that the three provisions are facially invalid under the First Amendment in that they prohibit truthful, non-misleading commercial speech, are inconsistently enforced by the state and the challenged statute unconstitutionally compels speech.

To state a claim that a statute is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment, Supreme Court precedent instructs that plaintiffs must show that there are no set of circumstances under which the challenged provision would be valid, or that a substantial number of the provision’s applications are unconstitutional. Alcohol beverage advertisements involve commercial speech, which receives less protection under the First Amendment than other constitutionally protected forms of expression. In Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Comm’n of New York (1980), the Supreme Court articulated a four-part test for determining the constitutionality of laws restricting commercial speech:  whether (1) the speech concerns lawful activity and is not misleading; (2) the governmental interest justifying the regulation is substantial; (3) the regulation directly advances the governmental interest; and (4) the regulation is no broader than necessary to further the governmental interest.

Applying the third and fourth factors of the Central Hudson test (plaintiffs and defendants agreed on the first two factors of the test), the court found that the facts plaintiffs alleged were “more than sufficient” to state a plausible claim. First, the court opined, plaintiffs made sufficient allegations that the challenged provisions do not directly advance Missouri’s substantial interest in promoting responsible drinking. Although defendants argued that a link exists between advertising promotions and increased demand for alcohol beverages, the court noted that “multiple” inconsistencies in the regulations demonstrate that the regulations do not advance Missouri’s interest in promoting responsible drinking. Likewise, the court determined, plaintiffs pled sufficient facts to support [...]

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