University News

Debate targets limits of commercial speech

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2012

Prominent Northwestern University professors Andrew Koppelman and Martin Redish discussed whether the government has a right to regulate commercial speech to protect public health and safety during the annual Meiklejohn Debate Thursday night.

Koppelman, professor of law and political science, presented his perspective first, making the case that the federal government has the right to regulate advertising from private companies because of the potential to mislead the public in pursuit of private profit. Koppelman called commercial speech — advertising by companies to promote their products — a special case not protected by the First Amendment.

When his time to speak came, Redish, professor of law and public policy, poked fun at his colleague, his friend of many years. “I would never suggest your knee-jerk left-wing views would inform your opinion on this,” Redish said, provoking laughter from Koppelman and audience members.

“The government cannot selectively suppress expression out of fear that the audience will make the wrong choices,” Redish said, calling free speech restrictions an abuse of power.

Koppelman said he believed government intervention was valid, citing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s requirement that food companies support their advertising claims with scientific data.

“If the speech can harm our autonomy, then it deserves regulation,” Koppelman said.

In response, Redish turned once again to humor, saying all expressions of free speech ­— commercial or not — were aimed at advancing private interests.

“The First Amendment is not the preserve of Mother Theresa,” he said.

Jointly sponsored by the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions and the Janus Forum, the Meiklejohn Debate annually features distinguished scholars on controversial legal issues related to the First Amendment. The forum is named in honor of 1893 graduate Alexander Meiklejohn, a former dean of the University who also served as president of Amherst College.

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