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Competing for notice with 1996's presidential elections and Olympic Games is an anniversary that deserves attention-and reflection-from the ad business. In 1996, it will be 20 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that the Constitution's First Amendment covered "commercial speech."

The justices that year struck down a Virginia state regulation that barred pharmacies from advertising prescription product prices, setting off a debate about advertising and a string of further high court decisions, that continues to this day.

Just last month, in an acrimonious 5-4 decision, the justices ruled the First Amendment does not prevent states from outlawing truthful direct mail advertising-when the mail in question sought clients for personal injury lawyers and was sent to accident victims within 30 days of the accident. Yet the same court early this year unanimously struck down long-standing federal rules that kept brewers from disclosing alcohol content on beer labels.

June's 5-4 lawyer ad ruling sparked speculation the court might in the future turn its back on the Virginia case principles to quash commercial speech by lawyers in the name of preserving the "dignity" of the legal profession. We hope instead that a thoughtful public celebration of this anniversary, involving advertisers, consumerists and First Amendment experts, will help renew the justices' commitment to the ideas of 1976: that no government-state, local or federal-has an open, unquestioned license to censor truthful commercial speech; and that truthful commercial speech benefits both marketer and consumer.

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