April 1, 2009
Florida Bar’s Advertising Rules Unconstitutionally Restrict Free Speech on the Internet
Restrictions Keep Public in Dark About Lawyer Services
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Florida Bar’s rules governing lawyer advertising on the Internet violate the free speech rights of lawyers by holding them accountable for reviews that former clients post on consumer Web sites, even though the lawyers have no control over what clients write, according to a suit Public Citizen filed today in federal court on behalf of a Boca Raton attorney.
The Florida Bar prohibits lawyers from advertising client testimonials and the results of past cases. The Bar told Joel B. Rothman, the plaintiff in the case, that his use of Avvo, an online lawyer directory, violated these rules. Rothman had asked several former clients to post reviews of his work on the site, but had no control over what the clients wrote. When the Bar told Rothman that the reviews were prohibited, Avvo refused to remove the reviews from the site.
The Bar’s rules not only violate Rothman’s First Amendment right to engage in truthful commercial advertising on the Internet, but also restrict competition by making it more difficult for consumers to make informed choices on legal representation, said Greg Beck, the Public Citizen attorney handling the case. Rothman is also represented by Bruce Rogow, a lawyer and professor of constitutional law at Nova Southeastern University.
“Reviews from past clients, whether positive or negative, can tell consumers a lot about a lawyer,” Beck said. “Restricting this information makes it more difficult for consumers to choose which lawyer to hire. It also gives lawyers less reason to compete by providing high-quality legal services.”
The suit asks the court to declare the Florida Bar’s advertising rules unconstitutional.
Public Citizen successfully sued New York disciplinary authorities over that state’s advertising rules, which a court ruled unconstitutional. That case is on appeal. Public Citizen also has filed a similar suit in Louisiana. The court in the Louisiana case delayed the implementation of the state’s advertising rules, which had been scheduled to take effect in December.