Court’s ruling

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, 134 F.3d 87 (1998).

FACTS Bad Frog Brewery, Inc., makes and sells alcoholic beverages. Some of the beverages feature labels with a drawing of a frog making the gesture generally known as “giving the finger.” Bad Frog’s authorized New York distributor, Renaissance Beer Company, applied to the New York State Liquor Authority (NYSLA) for brand label approval, as required by state law before the beer could be sold in New York. The NYSLA denied the application, in part, because “the label could appear in grocery and convenience stores, with obvious exposure on the shelf to children of tender age.” Bad Frog filed a suit in a federal district court against the NYSLA, asking for, among other things, an injunction against the denial of the application. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the NYSLA. Bad Frog appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

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Issue Was the New York State Liquor Authority’s ban of Bad Frog’s beer labels a reasonable restriction on commercial speech?

Decision No. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded the case for judgment to be entered in favor of Bad Frog.

Reason The appellate court held that the NYSLA’s denial of Bad Frog’s application violated the First Amendment. The ban on the use of the labels lacked a “reasonable fit” with the state’s interest in shielding minors from vulgarity, and the NYSLA did not adequately consider alternatives to the ban.

The court acknowledged that the NYSLA’s interest “in protecting children from vulgar and profane advertising” was “substantial.” The question was whether banning Bad Frog’s labels “directly advanced” that interest. “In view of the wide currency of vulgar displays throughout contemporary society, including comic books targeted directly at children, barring such displays from labels for alcoholic beverages cannot realistically be expected to reduce children’s exposure to such displays to any significant degree.”

The court concluded that a “commercial speech limitation” must be “part of a substantial effort to advance a valid state interest, not merely the removal of a few grains of offensive sand from a beach of vulgarity.” Finally, as to whether the ban on the labels was more extensive than necessary to serve this interest, the court pointed out that there were “numerous less intrusive alternatives.” For example, the NYSLA’s “concern could be less intrusively dealt with by placing restrictions on the permissible locations where the appellant’s products may be displayed within . . . stores.”

WHAT IF THE FACTS WERE DIFFERENT? If Bad Frog had sought to use the label to market toys instead of beer, would the court’s ruling likely have been the same? Explain your answer.


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