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Striking down a state ban on truthful price advertising, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 declared advertising constitutionally protected "commercial" speech. How ironic that nearly 20 years later, the justices again are weighing whether government can ban honest price ads.

In 1976, the issue was a ban on prescription price ads in Virginia. Today, it's a Rhode Island law that bars liquor price ads. The fact that Rhode Island's ban has been upheld by a U.S. circuit court of appeals is eloquent testimony to how far the high court has gone in muddying that basic principle shielding honest advertising from unreasonable government censorship.

Since the Virginia case, the courts have opened the door to bans on a variety of ads-for gambling casinos, lawyers and, most recently, alcoholic beverages and cigarettes (on outdoor boards in Baltimore). And they have done so without following the high court's standard that government censors show that the suppression of speech will in fact advance some important social purpose. The appeals court in the Rhode Island case required no proof that the liquor ad ban reduced alcohol consumption or abuse; it was enough that the ban seemed reasonable.

We believe the Rhode Island ban will be struck down, but the ad industry should look for more: a clear-cut statement from the majority of justices that "common-sense presumption" is not enough to justify an ad ban. Without it, there will be more ban attempts and more trips to the Supreme Court.

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