Privacy Laws and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment

by Jery Payne

Should a state be able to pass laws protecting people’s privacy? Should the constitution protect a person’s right to freedom of speech? If you think the answer to both is “yes,” then you might be surprised to learn that those two goals can conflict.

In 2007, Vermont passed a prescription­-confidentiality law, which forbade pharmacies from gathering and selling, for marketing, information detailing the prescriptions written by doctors. This law didn’t regulate the release of patient information; it was concerned with what prescriptions doctors were writing. This information is valuable because the drug companies can use it to market drugs to the doctors that are actually treating the types of patients the drugs may help.

This law riled up drug manufacturers and data miners, who filed a lawsuit, Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., in a United States district court. The lawsuit wended its way to the United State Supreme Court, which struck down the law based on the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court had two main concerns:

(1) The law was content-based, which means one has to look at the information to know if the law applies. When a law is content-based, the courts will normally consider it suspect under the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, and this means that it’s unlikely to survive a challenge.

(2) The law discriminated against certain users of the information. The Court was concerned that the law discriminated against people who would use the information to market drugs. That is, the pharmacies could sell the information to any person that wasn’t a drug manufacturer or marketer. Now, drug companies are the primary market for this information, but maybe a company that provides medical alternatives to drugs would be interested in the same information. The Court considered this fatal to Vermont’s claim that it was protecting the doctors’ privacy. If the law allowed broad communication of information except for one group of people, the Court thought that it didn’t really protect privacy. The Court contrasted this with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which generally forbids the release of patient information:

For instance, the State might have advanced its asserted privacy interest by allowing the information’s sale or disclosure in only a few narrow and well-justified circumstances. See, e.g., Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 …. A statute of that type would present quite a different case than the one presented here.

In the holding, the Court also explained:

This Court has held that the creation and dissemination of information are speech within the meaning of the First Amendment. … [I]f the acts of ‘disclosing’ and ‘publishing’ information do not constitute speech, it is hard to imagine what does fall within that category….

This case developed our understanding of the Free Speech Clause; that it not only affects laws that disseminate information, but it also affects laws that forbid creating or gathering information.

In 2015 and 2016, Wyoming passed and amended a statute that made it illegal for a person to cross “private land to access adjacent or proximate land where he collects resource data” without the owner’s permission or other types of legal authority. I expect many of you may be wondering, “What does ‘resource data’ mean?” The statute, section 6-3-414, defined the term as “data relating to land or land use, including … data regarding agriculture, minerals, geology, history, cultural artifacts, archeology, air, water, soil, conservation, habitat, vegetation or animal species.” So the law applied broadly and aimed at protecting the privacy of landowners.

In a case named Western Watersheds Project v. Michael, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals more or less overturned the Wyoming law for violating the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The appeals court was following Sorrell.

If the law had merely forbid crossing private land, there wouldn’t have been a problem. The court explained that there is no “First Amendment right to be exempt from an otherwise generally applicable law in order to facilitate speech indirectly limited by the [law].” The state may forbid trespass although it would stop you from having your say on someone else’s land. This is because the law has a legitimate purpose that isn’t directly related to speech.

But the Wyoming law didn’t merely forbid trespass; the law forbade trespass for the purpose of getting resource information. The law was content-based; you had to know what type of data was collected to know if the law applied. According to the Court, “The challenged statutes apply specifically to the creation of speech,” and thus “are subject to the First Amendment.”

The lower court had dismissed the lawsuit upon summary judgment, which means that there hadn’t actually been a trial yet. So the appeals court stopped short of striking down the law. But the appeals court ruling made it extremely unlikely that the law would survive. As expected, the district court ended up declaring the law unconstitutional.

Colorado and Wyoming are in the same judicial circuit, so this ruling applies in Colorado. So when thinking about a law to protect privacy, we would do well to be careful when (1) the law applies to obtaining only certain types of information or when (2) it’s aimed at one particular group. The first may be considered content-based and the second may be considered forbidden discrimination. It might seem better to narrowly tailor a law to apply only to the information we care about or to the group that wants the information, but either strategy may cause a court to hold that the law violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.