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Balancing the First Amendment and the Three Tier System – The Retail Digital Network Case

Summary:

After a January 2016 Ninth Circuit decision, there was a big question mark in California over whether the state could justify its laws creating and protecting the three tier system. The decision raised a real issue over whether the First Amendment right to free speech might triumph over three tier laws preventing supplier-paid advertisements in retail stores. In January 2016, no position was taken by the court on whether the law was justified, but the language of the opinion strongly suggested that the court had doubts that it could be. A June 2017 decision lays that question to rest, and affirms California’s right to legislate to prohibit suppliers from paying retailers for advertising, based on its powers under the Twenty-First Amendment, and thus issuing a strong reinforcement of the validity of the three tier system and the laws that maintain it.

Detail:

On June 14, the Ninth Circuit handed down a ten-to-one en banc decision, rejecting a First Amendment challenge to California’s law preventing suppliers from paying for advertising on licensed retail premises (Retail Digital Network v. Prieto, No. 13-56069). The plaintiff/appellant, Retail Digital Network, LLC (“RDN”), operates a business supplying digital screen displays to retailers across California, most of which are licensed to sell alcoholic beverages. The screens show short advertisements for various different consumer products, and the income received by RDN from those advertisers is shared with the host retail store. Frustrated at their difficulty in selling advertising slots to alcoholic beverage suppliers, RDN brought an action against the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), in the U.S. District Court for California, asking the Court to find the law stopping suppliers from paying for ads on their screens unconstitutional.

In order to succeed in the case, RDN had to overcome a thirty year old decision by the Ninth Circuit in a very similar case, where the company in question sold ads on shopping carts used in retail stores (Actmedia, Inc. v. Stroh, 830 F. 2d. 957 (9th Cir. 1986)) (“Stroh”). The same statute at issue in the RDN case, which prevents anything of value from being provided by a supplier or wholesaler to a retailer in return for advertising, had been challenged in that case, based on the same argument that it infringed the advertiser’s First Amendment right to free speech (the statute in question is California Business & Professions Code §25503(f)-(h)). Back in 1986, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the state’s right to regulate the commercialization of liquor pursuant to the Twenty-First Amendment, and, in particular, to legislate to achieve goals like the promotion of temperance and protection of the three tier system, provided sufficient justifications to uphold the constitutionality of the law. The court used the recognized, four-part, intermediate scrutiny test for analyzing content-based restrictions on non-misleading commercial speech, known as the “Central Hudson” test (based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission, 447 U.S. 557 (1980)). In order to get around the Stroh precedent, RDN argued in its claim that an intervening 2011 Supreme Court decision had changed the Central Hudson test for a First Amendment commercial speech review, creating a more demanding level of Court scrutiny over legislative restrictions on such speech, referred to as “heightened” scrutiny (Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 564 U.S. 552 (2011)) (“Sorrell”).

After receipt of RDN’s claim, the ABC filed for, and was granted, summary judgment on the basis that the Stroh precedent was not irreconcilable with Sorrell. RDN appealed to the Ninth Circuit, where three judges agreed that Sorrell had changed the level of scrutiny to be applied to limits on speech, and remanded the case to the District Court to hear more evidence on the reasons asserted by the state to justify the law. The District Court was directed by the Ninth Circuit to apply heightened rather than intermediate review to those reasons, on the basis of the decision in Sorrell. In addition to reversing the decision, the Ninth Circuit also took time to point out some concerns for the District Court to consider on remand, in its assessment of whether the ABC could legitimately raise any justification for the law, in part because of the large number of special interest exceptions created by the Legislature over the years.

When the initial Ninth Circuit decision was handed down in January 2016, it generated a huge industry response, with many concerns raised over its implied challenge to the integrity of the three tier foundational protections. In a highly unusual circumstance, the Ninth Circuit agreed to a rehearing of the case with eleven judges en banc, which hearing took place in January this year.

In the decision issued in June, the Ninth Circuit reversed its own January 2016 ruling, with ten judges confirming the original District Court summary judgment ruling, and one judge dissenting. Of the three judges who originally heard the case in the Ninth Circuit, only Chief Judge Thomas was part of the bench for rehearing, and he was the lone dissent. The court reviewed and essentially reaffirmed its decision in Stroh, and the applicability of the Central Hudson intermediate scrutiny test. The Ninth Circuit majority confirmed that the law in question was as narrowly drawn as possible to serve the state’s important goal of protecting the three tier system, by preventing possible illegal payoffs from suppliers to retailers, disguised as advertising payments, and by preventing suppliers and wholesalers from exerting undue influence over retailers. They diverged from Stroh only to state that they did not endorse the state’s other listed goal of promoting temperance by limiting point of purchase advertising, as being a legitimate justification for the law. The argument raised by RDN, and referred to in the initial Ninth Circuit decision, that the special interest exceptions undermine the purpose of the tied house law, was rejected by the court on the basis that they only affect a small minority of licensed retailers, and have a minimal effect on the entire regulatory scheme.

The majority’s decision leaves little question remaining as to the validity of the three tier system, and its legislative and regulatory protections in California.

If you have any questions about your alcohol business’ advertising practices or its relationships with retailers, contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.

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