Direct marketers expressed concern yesterday over a ruling the U.S. Supreme Court made Tuesday that reinstates a California law allowing certain police records to be released to the news media and others but requiring that it not be used for commercial purposes.
The court, by a 7-2 vote, overturned a closely watched U.S. appeals court ruling that struck down the California law saying it violated commercial free-speech rights. Chief justice William Rehnquist said the case was not about restricting commercial speech but about access to government records, which the government has a nearly free hand to grant or to withhold.
The case involves United Reporting Publishing Corp., Sacramento, CA, which sells lists of names, addressees and criminal charges of recently arrested individuals in certain parts of California to lawyers, insurance companies, driving schools and other businesses that use the information for marketing purposes.
In 1997, the Los Angeles Police Dept. sued because the state’s public records law had been amended to prohibit the release of information to those who cannot truthfully sign a statement that it “shall not be used directly or indirectly to sell a product or service.”
Rehnquist agreed that the law was not an abridgment of anyone's right to engage in free speech but simply a law regulating access to information in the hands of the police department.
The Direct Marketing Association was particularly concerned by the decision but hopes it will be appealed.
“We were disappointed,” said Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of government affairs at the DMA. “We have always felt that public information should remain in the public domain and are confident that the Ninth Circuit [Court], where the case was remanded, will determine that California law restricting access to police department records discriminates against marketers.”
DMA officials will talk to state legislators about the importance of access to public information. The United States was founded, Cerasale said, “in part to help protect against the abuse of power that could result from the control of information by government. It is this freedom of information that is the lifeblood of the information economy from which Americans are reaping so many benefits.”