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Bates v. State Bar of Arizona

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Significance: The Supreme Court held that states could not prohibit lawyers from advertising the prices of routine legal services.


In 1974 lawyers John Bates and Van O’Steen placed an advertisement in a newspaper that announced “legal services at very reasonable fees” and listed several examples. Because the Arizona bar association's ethics code prohibited such advertisements, the two lawyers were censored and suspended from legal practice for one week. They appealed on First Amendment grounds. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, in Virginia Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council (1976), struck down a state law that made it illegal for pharmacists to advertise the prices of prescription medications. For the Court, Justice Harry A. Blackmun explained that the First Amendment protected the right of pharmacists to communicate truthful information about lawful products and services. In Bates, the justices voted five to four to extend the Virginia Pharmacy Board principles to commercial advertising by lawyers. Justice Blackmun's majority opinion held that the protection of commercial speech under the First Amendment outweighed any possible “adverse effect on professionalism.” He noted that the decision did not endorse in-person solicitation of clients or advertisements about the quality of legal services. Also, he recognized the need to restrain false, deceptive, or misleading advertising as well as the legitimacy of reasonable time, place, and manner regulations. After Bates, the Court endorsed several restrictions on the commercial speech of lawyers. In Florida Bar v. Went for It (1995), for example, the Court upheld the Florida bar's prohibition of written solicitations to personal injury victims for thirty days following an accident or natural disaster.