Central Hudson Gas Electric Corporation v. Public Service Commission of New York

Decision Date20 June 1980
Docket NumberNo. 79-565,79-565
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Held : A regulation of appellee New York Public Service Commission which completely bans an electric utility from advertising to promote the use of electricity violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 561-572.

(a) Although the Constitution accords a lesser protection to commercial speech than to other constitutionally guaranteed expression, nevertheless the First Amendment protects commercial speech from unwarranted governmental regulation. For commercial speech to come within the First Amendment, it at least must concern lawful activity and not be misleading. Next, it must be determined whether the asserted governmental interest to be served by the restriction on commercial speech is substantial. If both inquiries yield positive answers, it must then be decided whether the regulation directly advances the governmental interest asserted, and whether it is not more extensive than is necessary to serve that interest. Pp. 561-566.

(b) In this case, it is not claimed that the expression at issue is either inaccurate or relates to unlawful activity. Nor is appellant electrical utility's promotional advertising unprotected commercial speech merely because appellant holds a monopoly over the sale of electricity in its service area. Since monopoly over the supply of a product provides no protection from competition with substitutes for that product, advertising by utilities is just as valuable to consumers as advertising by unregulated firms, and there is no indication that appellant's decision to advertise was not based on the belief that consumers were interested in the advertising. Pp. 566-568.

(c) The State's interest in energy conservation is clearly substantial and is directly advanced by appellee's regulations. The State's further interest in preventing inequities in appellant's rates—based on the assertion that successful promotion of consumption in "off-peak" periods would create extra costs that would, because of appellant's rate structure, be borne by all consumers through higher overall rates—is also substantial. The latter interest does not, however, provide a constitutionally adequate reason for restricting protected speech because the link between the advertising prohibition and appellant's rate structure is, at most, tenuous. Pp. 568-569.

(d) Appellee's regulation, which reaches all promotional advertising regardless of the impact of the touted service on overall energy use, is more extensive than necessary to further the State's interest in energy conservation which, as important as it is, cannot justify suppressing information about electric devices or services that would cause no net increase in total energy use. In addition, no showing has been made that a more limited restriction on the content of promotional advertising would not serve adequately the State's interests. Pp. 569-571.

47 N.Y.2d 94, 417 N.Y.S.2d 30, 390 N.E.2d 749, reversed.

Telford Taylor, New York City, for appellant.

Peter H. Schiff, Albany, N. Y., for appellee.

Mr. Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a regulation of the Public Service Commission of the State of New York violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments because it completely bans promotional advertising by an electrical utility.


In December 1973, the Commission, appellee here, ordered electric utilities in New York State to cease all advertising that "promot[es] the use of electricity." App. to Juris Statement 31a. The order was based on the Commission's finding that "the interconnected utility system in New York State does not have sufficient fuel stocks or sources of supply to continue furnishing all customer demands for the 1973-1974 winter." Id., at 26a.

Three years later, when the fuel shortage had eased, the Commission requested comments from the public on its proposal to continue the ban on promotional advertising. Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp., the appellant in this case, opposed the ban on First Amendment grounds. App. A10. After reviewing the public comments, the Commission extended the prohibition in a Policy Statement issued on February 25, 1977.

The Policy Statement divided advertising expenses "into two broad categories: promotional—advertising intended to stimulate the purchase of utility services—and institutional and informational, a broad category inclusive of all advertising not clearly intended to promote sales." 1 App. to Juris. Statement 35a. The Commission declared all promotional advertising contrary to the national policy of conserving energy. It acknowledged that the ban is not a perfect vehicle for conserving energy. For example, the Commission's order prohibits promotional advertising to develop consumption during periods when demand for electricity is low. By limiting growth in "off-peak" consumption, the ban limits the "beneficial side effects" of such growth in terms of more efficient use of existing power-plants. Id., at 37a. And since oil dealers are not under the Commission's jurisdiction and thus remain free to advertise, it was recognized that the ban can achieve only "piecemeal conservationism." Still, the Commission adopted the restriction because it was deemed likely to "result in some dampening of unnecessary growth" in energy consumption. Ibid.

The Commission's order explicitly permitted "informational" advertising designed to encourage "shifts of consumption" from peak demand times to periods of low electricity demand. Ibid. (emphasis in original). Informational advertising would not seek to increase aggregate consumption, but would invite a leveling of demand throughout any given 24-hour period. The agency offered to review "specific proposals by the companies for specifically described [advertising] programs that meet these criteria." Id., at 38a.

When it rejected requests for rehearing on the Policy Statement, the Commission supplemented its rationale for the advertising ban. The agency observed that additional electricity probably would be more expensive to produce than existing output. Because electricity rates in New York were not then based on marginal cost,2 the Commission feared that additional power would be priced below the actual cost of generation. This additional electricity would be subsidized by all consumers through generally higher rates. Id., at 57a-58a. The state agency also thought that promotional advertising would give "misleading signals" to the public by appearing to encourage energy consumption at a time when conservation is needed. Id., at 59a.

Appellant challenged the order in state court, arguing that the Commission had restrained commercial speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.3 The Commis- sion's order was upheld by the trial court and at the intermediate appellate level.4 The New York Court of Appeals affirmed. It found little value to advertising in "the noncompetitive market in which electric corporations operate." Consolidated Edison Co. v. Public Service Comm'n, 47 N.Y.2d 94, 110, 417 N.Y.S.2d 30, 39, 390 N.E.2d 749, 757 (1979). Since consumers "have no choice regarding the source of their electric power," the court denied that "promotional advertising of electricity might contribute to society's interest in 'informed and reliable' economic decisionmaking." Ibid. The court also observed that by encouraging consumption, promotional advertising would only exacerbate the current energy situation. Id., at 110, 417 N.Y.S.2d, at 39, 390 N.E.2d, at 758. The court concluded that the governmental interest in the prohibition outweighed the limited constitutional value of the commercial speech at issue. We noted probable jurisdiction, 444 U.S. 962, 100 S.Ct. 446, 62 L.Ed.2d 374 (1979), and now reverse.


The Commission's order restricts only commercial speech, that is, expression related solely to the economic interests of the speaker and its audience. Virginia Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, 425 U.S. 748, 762, 96 S.Ct. 1817, 1825, 48 L.Ed.2d 346 (1976); Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350, 363-364, 97 S.Ct. 2691, 2698-2699, 53 L.Ed.2d 810 (1977); Friedman v. Rogers, 440 U.S. 1, 11, 99 S.Ct. 887, 895, 59 L.Ed.2d 100 (1979). The First Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, protects commercial speech from unwarranted governmental regulation. Virginia Pharmacy Board, 425 U.S., at 761-762, 96 S.Ct., at 1825. Commercial expression not only serves the economic interest of the speaker, but also assists consumers and furthers the societal interest in the fullest possible dissemination of information. In applying the First Amendment to this area, we have rejected the "highly paternalistic" view that government has complete power to suppress or regulate commercial speech. "[P]eople will perceive their own best interests if only they are well enough informed, and . . . the best means to that end is to open the channels of communication rather than to close them. . . ." Id., at 770, 96 S.Ct., at 1829, see Linmark Associates, Inc. v. Willingboro, 431 U.S. 85, 92, 97 S.Ct. 1614, 1618, 50 L.Ed.2d 155 (1977). Even when advertising communicates only an incomplete version of the relevant facts, the First Amendment presumes that some accurate information is better than no information at all. Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, supra, at 374, 97 S.Ct., at 2704.

Nevertheless, our decisions have recognized "the 'commonsense' distinction between speech proposing a commercial transaction, which occurs in an area traditionally subject to government regulation, and other varieties of speech." Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Assn., 436 U.S. 447, 455-456, 98 S.Ct. 1912, 1918, 56 L.Ed.2d 444 (1978); see Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, supra, 433 U.S., at 381, 97...

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