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Bigelow v. Virginia

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Significance: The Supreme Court declared that the First Amendment protects commercial advertising to “some degree” and overturned a state statute prohibiting advertisements of abortion services.


In 1971 the Virginia Weekly of Charlottesville published an advertisement for an organization that helped women obtain legal abortions in the state of New York. The newspaper's editor, Jeffrey Bigelow, was convicted for violating a state statute that made it a misdemeanor to encourage or help a woman to have an abortion. Bigelow argued that the statute infringed on his free press rights under the First Amendment. In response, the state referred to Valentine v. Chrestensen (1942), in which the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment placed no restrictions on governmental regulations of “purely commercial advertising.” By a 7-2 vote, the Court overturned the statute and greatly limited the Valentine ruling. Justice Harry A. Blackmun's opinion for the Court emphasized that the spirit of the First Amendment favors the widespread dissemination of information and opinions. Blackmum noted that the advertisement contained truthful information about a legal service. The Court refused to decide the extent to which states might regulate commercial advertisements, especially those dealing with harmful activities. It was clear, nevertheless, that commercial speech merited a lesser degree of constitutional protection than political and religious speech. Subsequent to Bigelow, the Court issued a series of decisions, such as Bates v. State Bar of Arizona (1977), that continued to expand First Amendment protection for commercial advertising. In Forty-four Liquormart v. Rhode Island (1996), the Court struck down a state ban on the advertising of alcoholic beverage prices, even though the Twenty-first Amendment gives states broad authority to regulate the sale of the product.