Fla. justices loosen lawyer advertising rules

Florida Supreme Court loosens lawyer advertising regulations but extends them to websites

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- A divided Florida Supreme Court on Thursday loosened regulations on advertising by lawyers but also extended those rules to websites and other information.

A majority of at least four of the seven justices agreed to permit previously prohibited ads that characterize the quality of legal services being offered, information about past results and testimonials.

All advertising, though, must be "objectively verifiable," whether distributed over the Internet or through traditional media such as print, outdoor and broadcast.

That means, for example, an ad can say a lawyer obtained acquittals on all charges in four criminal cases, but a spot simply saying an attorney has been "successful" may not be allowed. Making an entirely subjective claim such as being "the best trial lawyer in Florida" would be misleading and prohibited, the majority said in an unsigned opinion.

"If the attorney can show, by objective facts, that the statement is true, then he has presented an objectively verifiable statement in the advertisement," the justices wrote.

With some modifications, the high court adopted recommendations from the Florida Bar. They are based on state and federal court rulings as well as input from the bar's Citizen's Forum, lawyers and others and a survey on public attitudes toward lawyer advertising.

"The proposals are designed to make the advertising rules more cohesive, easier for lawyers who advertise to understand and less cumbersome for the bar to apply and enforce," the majority wrote.

The rules also attempt to balance lawyers' First Amendment right of free speech with protecting legal consumers and maintaining public trust in the judicial system.

Four justices concurred with the majority opinion and two dissented. The seventh justice, Peggy Quince, dissented in part but did not explain which portion of the ruling she disagreed with.

In a lengthy dissent, Justice Barbara Pariente wrote that she would have exempted websites and responses to requests for information from the rules except to require that they be "truthful and not misleading."

Pariente called the new rules a "one-size-fits all approach" that has an unnecessary and "potentially chilling effect" on lawyers' ability to communicate with the public through those two channels.

Neither presents the danger of misleading the public as do traditional advertising methods such as television commercials and billboards, she maintained.

"In my view, these forms of lawyer advertising have changed the face of the legal profession and that change has not been a positive one," Pariente wrote.

She also objected to loosening the regulations on traditional advertising, citing a survey that showed 88 percent of Florida judges believe lawyer ads have adversely affected public confidence in the administration of justice.

Justice Charles Canady expressed the opposite view in a separate dissent, writing that the new rules remain "unduly restrictive." He was in agreement with Pariente, though, on websites, saying he was particularly concerned about the restrictions on that form of communication.

The high court majority rejected a bar proposal to prohibit lawyers from citing prior public offices they've held, such as judge or legislator, in their ads. The justices are allowing the titles as long as they are after rather than before the lawyer's name and it's made clear the attorney no longer holds that public office. Canady also objected to those restrictions.

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