Local Product Warning Ordinance Violates First Amendment

When we touch on Constitutional issues, most often we are posting about due process concerns raised by procedural shortcuts, proposed for administrative or efficiency reasons, at the potential expense of a defendant's rights.  Today we get to actually write about a First Amendment issue, as the Ninth Circuit recently blocked San Francisco’s attempt to implement its local cellphone radiation warning ordinance because it violates the First Amendment. See CTIA – The Wireless Association v. City and County of San Francisco, Calif., No. 11-17773 (9th Cir.).  It is a wonderful reminder about this freedom, which separates our nation from much of the world. 

San Fransisco passed an ordinance imposing warning language standards on cell phone retailers, specifically requiring cell phone sellers to make certain disclosures to consumers about radio-frequency energy emissions from cell phones. S.F. Ordinance 156-11 was originally set to take effect in October 2011, but CTIA – The Wireless Association filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the law. CTIA contended the San Francisco law conflicted with the FCC's safety standards and violated rights of free speech by forcing retailers to communicate alarmist messages about cellphone radiation. 

The district court enjoined enforcement of part of the ordinance, and both sides appealed.  The Ninth Circuit panel affirmed the injunction and noted two problems with the ordinance. First, under the standard established in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, 471 U.S. 626 (1986), any governmentally compelled disclosures to consumers must be “purely factual and uncontroversial.” Id. at 651. The law here required cellphone retailers to provide every customer with an informational "fact sheet" about the possible health risks of radio-frequency energy emissions from cellphones.  That fact sheet contained more than just facts. It also contained San Francisco’s recommendations as to what consumers should do if they want to reduce exposure to radio-frequency energy emissions. This language could be interpreted by consumers as expressing San Francisco’s opinion that using cell phones is dangerous. The FCC, however, has established limits of radio-frequency energy exposure, within which it has concluded using cell phones is safe. See, e.g., Guidelines for Evaluating the Envt’l Effects of Radio-frequency Radiation, 11 F.C.C.R. 15123, 15184 (1996).  Even the findings made by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on which the challenged ordinance was predicated acknowledged that there "is a debate in the scientific community about the health effects of cell phones,” and the district court observed that “San Francisco concedes that there is no evidence of cancer caused by cell phones.” The court of appeals could not say on the basis of this record that the fact sheet was both “purely factual and uncontroversial.” Zauderer, 471 U.S. at 651.

The ordinance also required retailers to prominently display an informational poster in their stores, and to paste an informational sticker on all display literature for cellphones warning about the possible health risks of radio-frequency energy emissions from cellphones. The district court enjoined the original ordinance compelling distribution of these broader materials.  Since the ordinance sought to compel statements that are even more misleading and controversial than the  fact sheet, the original injunction must be affirmed, said the appeals court.

Science vs. Politics on Cell Phones Safety

The contrast is striking.  Recently, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 vote in favor of an ordinance requiring cell phone retailers in that city disclose cell phones' specific absorption rate, or SAR, to customers.

The same day, a study was published that further substantiates the safety of cell phone use.  Mobile phone base stations and early childhood cancers: case-control study, BMJ 2010;340:c3077.  The study, in the British Medical Journal, showed no link between proximity to cell phone towers and increased cancer risk to children whose mothers were pregnant while living near such towers.

The study looked at almost 7,000 children and incidence of early childhood cancers across Great Britain.  This was compared with data from Britain's four national mobile phone operators -- Vodafone, O2, France Telecom's Orange, and Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile -- on more than 80,000 mobile phone towers used from 1996 to 2001.   The researchers found that those who developed cancer before the age of five were not more likely to have been born close to a tower than their peers. The scientists found no association between risk of cancer in young children and estimated exposures to radiofrequency from mobile phone base stations during pregnancy.

MassTortDefense notes some strengths in the study: its size and national coverage, avoiding selection and reporting bias in the choice of cases and areas for study. Also, because it focused on early childhood cancers, it avoided issues of long latency that can affect interpretation of some mobile phone studies in adults.

The study adds to a growing body of scientific research which has found no links between cell phones and cancer. Use of mobile phones has increased markedly in recent years. In the United Kingdom, the number of mobile connections has risen from just under nine million in 1997 to almost 74 million in 2007.

In light of the real science, we wonder if the ordinance will actually mislead consumers with point of sale requirements implicitly suggesting that some phones are "safer" than others based on radiofrequency (RF) emissions. In fact, all phones sold in the U.S. must comply with the Federal Communications Commission's safety standards for RF emissions.