Tobacco Cos. Appeal Corrective Statement Language

Argue proposed wording violates free speech rights

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

WASHINGTON -- Two weeks after Altria Group Inc., Lorillard Inc. and Reynolds American Inc. came to an agreement with the Justice Department on the finer details of a court-ordered corrective statement advertising blitz, lawyers representing the three tobacco companies filed an appeal to contest the specific wording of the statements. (Read the full story here)

According to Reuters, the wording appeal was actually filed before the January 10 agreement was made – Altria, Lorillard and Reynolds requested that it be put on hold as they negotiated the other details of the corrective statement spots. During a U.S. District Court hearing last Wednesday, lawyers representing the three companies confirmed they would be moving forward with the appeal, as the proposed language violates their clients’ free speech rights.

One of the proposed ads in question would require the companies to state that “a federal court has ruled that the defendant tobacco companies deliberately deceived the American public by falsely selling and advertising low tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes.”

Speaking at Wednesday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler—who ruled against the tobacco companies in the original 2006 trial—expressed fears that this latest appeal would push back the corrective statement ads until at least 2015.

“I'm of course concerned about the delays,” Kessler said. “The bottom line is the public is not getting what I would consider to be the benefit of the corrective statements.”

In 2012, Kessler argued that the ads would not violate free speech because the language is factual and not controversial. However, Justice Department lawyer Daniel Crane-Hirsch said it "seems entirely possible” that the loser of the wording appeal would bring the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wording isn’t the only thing that could hold back the corrective statement ads: Fox Broadcasting Co. and the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters have filed court papers requesting corrective statement ads air on their networks, representing a change to the January 10 agreement (which only required the spots play on CBS, ABS or NBC). Both Crane-Hirsch and lawyers representing Altria, Lorillard and Reynolds warned Kessler that the already lengthy process would take longer if she further modifies the agreed upon logistics.

As to the importance of how the ads are worded, Noel Francisco, whose firm represents Reynolds, told the judge, “it will take some time, but I think that reflects the weightiness of the issues at stake.”