Law Firm Challenges Rules Restricting Online Promotion
The firm, the Wolfe Law Group, argues that the new regulations violate lawyers' freedom of speech rights. In addition to waging a battle in the courtroom, the firm also has created the Facebook group "Blog No Evil" and a blog titled "Blogging is Speaking," devoted to criticizing the new requirements.
"The restrictive rules will operate to stifle the dissemination of discourse and knowledge into the information marketplace, thereby harming the public at large and the legal profession itself," the firm says in a lawsuit filed this week in federal district court in the eastern district of Louisiana against the state's attorney disciplinary board.
The lawyers argue that the rules will prevent them from discussing legal issues online and will also harm consumers by impeding their ability to receive information about legal matters.
Among other provisions, the regulations require lawyers to submit ads for pre-publication review at a cost of $175 per ad. If blog posts are deemed ads, attorneys would potentially be required to pay for vetting each time they write a new post, or even comment on other people's blogs.
"By charging $175.00 to the plaintiffs for each blog post, bulletin board comment, twitter posting and/or other instance of ... 'computer-assessed communication,' the government would place a significant burden on the plaintiffs," the lawsuit alleges.
The new rules also require that lawyers' ads include the name of an attorney and the location of an office. But the Wolfe Group says this mandate could make it impossible to advertise on search engines, where space for ad copy is extremely limited.
Internet law experts say Louisiana's approach is problematic because advertising is entitled to First Amendment protection, though less than pure editorial content.
"It's hard to justify a governmental interest in this type of speech," said Citizen Media Law Project director David Ardia. "A lawyer who wants to start a blog or a law professor who wants to post to the Volokh Conspiracy (a prominent legal site) should be able to do that," he said.
Ardia adds that the regulations appear to stem from an impulse to control attorneys' public images rather than to protect consumers from fraud. "It's about maintaining a certain view of the legal profession," he said. "That's a specious argument for governmental regulation. As a society that values open and free speech, that's not something we want to countenance."
Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, agreed. "This is a good and important challenge to a poorly conceived rule," he said of the lawsuit.
Chuck Plattsmier, Louisiana's chief disciplinary counsel, said he couldn't comment on the case because he hadn't been served with the complaint.
He added that the rules were passed to after the state legislature had started conducting hearings about lawyer advertising in response to citizens' concerns about "misleading and inappropriate" ads.
The new regulations are slated to take effect in April.