Rubin v. Coors Brewing Company

PETITIONER: Rubin
RESPONDENT: Coors Brewing Company
LOCATION: Jefferson County District Court

DOCKET NO.: 93-1631
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 514 US 476 (1995)
ARGUED: Nov 30, 1994
DECIDED: Apr 19, 1995

ADVOCATES:
Bruce J. Ennis, Jr. - on behalf of the Respondent
Edwin S. Kneedler - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

Coors Brewing Co. (Coors) applied to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for an approval of proposed labels. The approval was rejected because it violated the Federal Alcohol Administration Act’s (FAAA) prohibition of disclosing the alcohol content on beer labels or advertisements. Coors filed a claim arguing the regulation violated the First Amendment’s protection of commercial speech. The government argued the regulation was necessary to prevent “strength wars” among brewers, which in this case, refers to breweries competing on the basis of the potency of their alcohol.

The district court found in favor of Coors, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed the judgment and remanded the case back to the district court. The district court subsequently upheld the ban of alcohol content in advertising, but not on labels. The government appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed the judgment of the lower court by concluding that the label ban did not prevent strength wars.

Question

Does the Federal Alcohol Administration Act’s prohibition of displaying alcohol content on beer labels violate the First Amendment’s protection of commercial speech?

 

Media for Rubin v. Coors Brewing Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 30, 1994 in Rubin v. Coors Brewing Company

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 19, 1995 in Rubin v. Coors Brewing Company

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the court in number 93-1631, Rubin v. Coors Brewing Co. would be announced by Justice Thomas.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit and it is an interesting case that involves the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms beer labels and the First Amendment an unlikely combination.

The Federal Alcohol Administration Act prohibits beer labels from displaying alcohol content.

Respondents sought approval from the BATF for proposed labels that disclosed alcohol content, but this application was rejected.

Respondent filed a suit on the ground that the ban on disclosure had violated the First Amendment protection of commercial speech.

The District Court agreed with the respondent and invalidated the relevant provisions of the Act.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed and held that the ban violates the First Amendment because it fails to advance the Government interest in a direct and material way.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we affirm the Court of Appeals.

We agree with the Government that it does have a substantial interest in suppressing competition by brews on the basis of alcohol content.

We do not agree however that the Government asserted interest in facilitating the State’s exercise of their powers over alcohol under the Twenty-first Amendment is a sufficiently substantial interest.

The Government has offered nothing to indicate that the States are in need of federal assistance in this area.Also, the ban fails because it does not directly advance the Government state of interest in suppressing “strength wars”.Other parts of the act that mere implementing regulations such as provision allowing the disclosure of alcohol content in advertisements and the identification of certain high alcohol beers as malt liquor, undermine and counteract the effects of the labeling ban.

Further, the ban is more expensive than necessary, since available alternatives to the labeling ban, such as directly limiting alcohol content of beers were prohibiting marketing efforts that promote the high alcohol strength would be less intrusive to the First Amendment’s protection for commercial speech.

Justice Stevens has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.