Cornell Law Review Volume 99 Issue 3

Visual Gut Punch: Persuasion, Emotion, and the Constitutional Meaning of Graphic Disclosure

The ability of government to “nudge” with information mandates, or merely to inform consumers of risks, is circumscribed by First Amendment interests that have been poorly articulated. New graphic cigarette warning labels supplied courts with the first opportunity to assess the informational interests attending novel forms of product disclosures. The D.C. Circuit enjoined them as unconstitutional, compelled by a narrative that the graphic labels converted government from objective informer to ideological persuader, shouting its warning to manipulate consumer decisions. This interpretation will leave little room for graphic disclosure and is already being used to challenge textual disclosure requirements (such as county-of-origin labeling) as unconstitutional.

Graphic warning and the increasing reliance on regulation-by-disclosure present new free speech quandaries related to consumer autonomy, state normativity, and speaker liberty. This Article examines the distinct goals of product disclosure requirements and how those goals may serve to vindicate, or to frustrate, listener interests. I argue that many disclosures, and especially warnings, are necessarily both normative and informative, expressing value along with fact. It is not the existence of a norm that raises constitutional concern but rather the insistence on a controversial norm. Turning to the means of disclosure, this Article examines how emotional and graphic communication might change the constitutional calculus. Using autonomy theory and the communications research on speech processing, I conclude that disclosures do not bypass reason simply by reaching for the heart. If large graphic labels are unconstitutional, it will be because of undue burden on the speaker, not because they are emotionally powerful.

 

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