Is the Country of Origin Labeling Requirement Unconstitutional?

ClothingLabel-MadeChinaThe constitutional rights of businesses are hot topics. Freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of liberty, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, that benefits commercial entities as well as individuals. The right to spend unlimited money to support the election or defeat of particular candidates for office derives from the right to freedom of speech. But does the same First Amendment right protect businesses from being compelled by government regulations to speak on matters as to which they would prefer not to comment, whether or not they are “controversial” or “political”? Is there a freedom to refrain from speaking?

If you think this question has nothing to do with fashion, you would be wrong. Every manufacturer in the fashion and accessory business labels its products with their “country of origin”, guided by detailed regulations promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission. Decisions in two recent cases, which have nothing to do with fashion, but everything to do with government regulations compelling businesses to speak on the source of their products, suggest that the “country of origin” regulatory scheme for the fashion industry may be challenged on First Amendment grounds.

A federal statute requires country of origin labeling for meat to address the country where the animal was born, raised or slaughtered. New rules for implementing the statute were promulgated in 2013 to comply with a World Trade Organization ruling on a complaint from Mexico and Canada, requiring greater specificity in describing separately the country where each of these events in the animal’s life occurred. A group of trade associations, feedlot operators and meat processors filed suit to enjoin the rules, claiming they violated the First Amendment. The argument was rejected by a three judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, holding that the First Amendment did not bar the government from compelling factual speech on a non-controversial matter that might be of interest to consumers. The full court, however, voted to hear the case anew before all eleven judges of the court. The parties were directed to address the scope of First Amendment protection for mandatory disclosure of purely factual and non-controversial commercial information, compelled for reasons other than preventing consumer deception.

The outcome of this review may be foreshadowed by the same court’s decision on April 14, 2014, striking down Securities and Exchange Commission regulations that required public companies to disclose whether they used “conflict minerals” (minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo used by warring factions to finance their operations) in products they marketed or manufactured. The three judge panel found that it was unconstitutional to compel speech in the absence of a need to prevent consumer deception.

So one might well ask whether it is unconstitutional to compel apparel manufacturers to say anything about the subject when they are not marketing goods based on the country of origin. What purpose does it serve and do consumers need the information?

Credit: Helene M. Freeman