Sunday, May 05, 2013

Are federal rules requiring airlines to "hide" ticket taxes a violation of the First Amendment?

George Will has an interesting syndicated column this morning about “commercial” vss. “political speech”.  
He takes to task a 2-1 DC Circuit Appeals Court opinion upholding federal rules that force airlines to hide the federal tax portion of airline tickets in the fine print. (That was the Circuit that turned down Naval midshipman Joe Steffan en banc in 1994; I was there for the hearing.)
It sounds like an odd rule, in a time when use of plain English and full disclosure is a public policy trend for most businesses. 
But the federal government doesn’t want the public to be too conscious of the taxes it pays for air travel.  The rule affects low cost carriers more than legacy  airlines.
The op-ed appears on p. A21 of the Sunday Washington Post, and is titled “Muzzling Free Speech about Taxes”, and is syndicated.  Other papers (like St. Louis) called it, “Why judicial activism matters”, link (website url) here

Will points out that there is no constitutional reason why commercial speech should be less protected than political speech.  In a sense, almost any Internet site offering political opinions alongside ads is also “commercial speech” --  an idea that gives the speech a more nuanced “purpose” when you talk about implicit content.
I can remember, back around 1986, when a “People’s Express” portion on an airlines trip had to be ticketed by hand, and that in the past Southwest Airlines wouldn’t interline or print regular tickets, anyway

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