The July 29 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling on a food industry challenge to federal meat labeling requirements was being carefully watched by industries affected by U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules on conflict minerals. Industry representatives had previously challenged the SEC’s conflict minerals rules on free-speech grounds.
Legal experts believe that the rationale embraced by the court could apply in other cases in which business interests object to regulations on free speech grounds, such as the SEC requirements that companies disclose whether the conflict minerals in their products could be determined to have financed violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and adjacent countries.
In April, the same appeals court ruled that parts of the SEC’s conflict minerals rule violated free-speech protections, but the SEC asked for a rehearing by the full court. The appeals court upheld other aspects of the law, such as requiring companies to check their supply chains to see whether minerals from the Republic of the Congo region were being used, and to file reports to the SEC. In their appeal, the SEC cited the potential relevance of the meat labeling case.
The appeals court judges reheard the meat labeling case to interpret a 1985 Supreme Court precedent on what is known as “compelled commercial speech.” The question before the judges was whether the government can only require disclosures when its aim is to prevent deception or whether it has broader authority that would cover other types of speech. Embracing the latter interpretation, the appeals court ruling potentially gives the government more freedom to compel speech in different contexts.