In In re R.M.J., 455 U.S. 191 (1982), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a Missouri ethics rule restricting advertising by lawyers was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The Court’s decision reversed a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the ethics rule while issuing a private reprimand to a lawyer for failing to comply with the advertising restrictions. This is one of several decisions in which the Court has decided the extent to which the First Amendment protections apply to the regulation of lawyer advertising.
Missouri law limited attorney advertising to 10 categories
The law in question limited advertising to 10 categories of information:
- Name, address, and telephone number
- Areas of practice
- Date and place of birth
- Schools attended
- Foreign language ability
- Offices hours
- Fee for an initial consultation
- Availability of a schedule of fees
- Credit arrangements
- The fixed fee to be charged for certain “routine” legal services
Law was result of trying to comply with previous Court decisions
Writing the opinion for the Court, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. reviewed the Missouri ethics rule regulating lawyer advertising which had been revised in an effort to comply with the Court’s prior decision in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona (1977). In Bates, the Court decided that lawyer advertising was a form of commercial speech protected by the First Amendment but still could be regulated to prevent false, deceptive, or misleading advertising. Prior to the decision in Bates, Missouri and most other states had an absolute prohibition on lawyer advertising.
In response to the Bates decision, the Committee on Professional Ethics and Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Missouri revised the ethics rule regulating lawyer advertising in an effort to strike a balance between a complete prohibition and unlimited advertising. In applying these restrictions to advertising by the lawyer R.M.J., the Missouri Supreme Court reprimanded the lawyer for failing to adhere to the precise language of the rule. In striking down the Missouri ethics rule, the Court determined that the information published by the lawyer was not inherently misleading, had not been shown to be misleading, and the Supreme Court of Missouri had failed to demonstrate any substantial justification for the restrictions.
Court struck down law but emphasized the states’ authority to regulate misleading advertising
Although the Court struck down the Missouri ethics rule as too restrictive, the Court emphasized that the states retain authority to regulate advertising that is inherently misleading or misleading in practice. The Court noted that efforts to regulate lawyer advertising must consist of carefully drawn restrictions, and that the First and Fourteenth Amendments require that any restrictions imposed must be no more extensive than reasonably necessary to further substantial government interests. R.M.J. helped lay the groundwork for several other Court decisions defining the permissible limits on lawyer advertising.
This article was originally published in 2009. Peter A. Joy is the Henry Hitchcock Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis. He is a former General Counsel for the Ohio Chapter of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and a former member of the Legal Committees for the Ohio Chapter and Missouri Chapter of the ACLU. He has represented clients with First Amendment issues including freedom of expression, academic freedom, and right to petition the government in state and federal courts at both the trial and appellate levels as well as authoring amicus briefs focusing on First Amendment issues.