Short synopsis -
- In 1997, reporters discovered Nike's horrendous sweatshop labor practices overseas.
- Nike, through PR and ads, made obviously false statements about their labor practices. These include whoppers such as: their workers were paid twice the minimum wage, received free meals and health care, complied with all local labor laws, were protected from physical and sexual abuse, etc.
- A Californian named Marc Kasky decided to sue Nike on behalf of the general public for violating restrictions on commercial speech that is false or misleading.
- Nike defends itself by claiming that they had "freedom of speech" rights to lie. The local court agrees with Nike, but the California Supreme Court declares Nike's statements to be commercial, non-protected speech, and overturns the decision. The case may soon be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The issue here is not about the trampling of free speech, as Nike would like the public to believe. It is first whether companies have the same right to free speech as individuals (to the point that they can knowingly lie), and, if so, whether these rights apply evenly to both commercial and non-commercial speech. Along the way, the court may also need to decide how to distinguish between commercial and non-commercial speech -- especially when that speech comes from a multinational corportation.
Frankly, I don't see how you can make a distinction between commercial and non-commercial speech for businesses -- practically all company speech is inherently commercial. That leads me to believe that what is ultimately at risk is our right to pass laws that prevent companies from lying to us.
It's worth noting that the next company that lies to us may not be Nike -- it might be the company that makes your medicine or your child's toys, telling you that they're perfectly safe -- and if they're lying and they know it, well... that's just business.
On the plus side, I hear that if this decision does get overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, we'll see the return of those healthy cigarettes people used to smoke back in the '50s...