After casting a shadow over the entire United States Judicial System by delving into the Floridian quagmire, Supreme Court justices hung up their robes for the holidays. On Monday, the nine men and women who sit at the nation’s highest bar returned to work and quickly decided to undertake a case which might restore some confidence that the Court knows what it’s doing.
In April, justices will hear oral arguments from the tobacco industry that challenge a number of local government bans on outdoor cigarette advertising and focus primarily on billboards. The industry claims that such bans violate the right to free speech afforded by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. Opposing the Court’s decision, anti-smoking groups insist that it is the government’s prerogative to regulate advertising in the name of public health. Not only are local governments unfairly targeting such advertisements, however, they are wasting valuable resources and energy better used elsewhere.
Big Tobacco, demonically powerful though it may be, has built a strong case for itself, and the argument is sound. This particular legal battle emanates from Massachusetts, where the state attorney general forbade outdoor advertising of tobacco products within 1,000 feet of a school or playground, but cities across the nation have adopted similar measures. These laws effectively ban such ads in nearly every corner of the state, according the tobacco industry’s legal team. More importantly, these ads are legitimately trying to curry favor for a legal product, and the government may not condemn the dissemination of information simply because the majority deems it unpopular. Nonetheless, a federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston upheld the ban, arguing that the government had a vested interest in protecting minors. But George Carlin had the right idea when he tagged the modern campaign to “save the children” for what it truly is – a worthless load of crap.
Censoring movies, putting warning labels on CDs and banning cigarette advertisements will not magically create honest and admirable children. But responsible parenting and education will, and until the Powers That Be realize this, and stop trying to pass the buck, we are headed down a long, dark road. The law has already gone to great length trying to sanitize the advertising campaigns of the tobacco industry. Joe Camel is dead, the Surgeon General’s two cents are on every ad and you will never see Marlboros pimped on television. Now cities are dumping even more resources into this uphill battle that could more profitably be used for education and cracking down on stores that sell tobacco to minors.
Delinquent use of tobacco is harmful and must be avoided if at all possible, but denying the right to free speech and equal protection under the law is not the way. Tobacco advertising is ubiquitous, and targeting only outdoor ads is both unjust and pointless. The Marlboro Man has never pointed the way to the store with the loose carding policy, but kids find it just the same. The burden falls upon family and friends to instruct children until they are old enough to decide for themselves. Big Tobacco is not our friend, but this time, the Supreme Court made the right decision in hearing this case.