Freedom of Commercial Speech in Europe



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The “public debate” test in the Community law context

The public debate test has been applied by the ECtHR in determining the level of protection accorded to the speech in a commercial context. The same test has been explicitly applied by the ECJ in the case which gave rise to the preliminary ruling in Herbert Karner Industrie-Auktionen GmbH and Troostwijk GmbH92. The case concerned Paragraph 30 (1) of the Austrian Law on Unfair Competition. This provision prohibits any public announcements or notices intended for a large circle of persons from making reference to the fact that the goods advertised originate from an insolvent estate when the goods in question, even though that was their origin, no longer form part of the insolvent estate.93 The provisions of such information is deemed to be capable of attracting consumers, who believe to make purchases at advantageous prices because the company is wound up, not being in the position to determine whether the sale has been organised by the insolvency administrator or by a party who had acquired the goods from the insolvent estate. Kerner and Troostwijk were involved in the sale by auction of industrial goods and purchasing of the stock of the insolvent companies. On the application by Kerner, the Austrian court issued an injunction against Troostwijk, prohibiting Troostwijk to refer in its advertisements for sale that the goods were from an insolvent company. Troostwijk appealed against that injunction, questioning the compatibility of Paragraph 30 (1) Austrian Law on Unfair Competition with the Treaty provisions on freedoms of movement of goods and Art. 10 ECHR embodying the freedom of expression.


The Court recognised that Member States enjoy discretion in balancing the competing interests. In this regard, however, “[w]hen the exercise of the freedom does not contribute to a discussion of public interest and, in addition, arises in a context in which the Member States have a certain amount of discretion, review is limited to an examination of the reasonableness and proportionality of the interference. This holds true for the commercial use of freedom of expression, particularly in a field as complex and fluctuating as advertising”.94 On this ground the Court held that the restrictions imposed by Paragraph 30 (1) Austrian Law on Unfair Competition were reasonable and proportionate in the light of the legitimate objectives pursued, namely consumer protection and fair trading.95 In the light of this judgment a conclusion may be drawn that the Court seems to differentiate between the exercise of freedom of expression which does and does not contribute to a discussion on matters of public concern. As a consequence a less strict test is applied in scrutinising the restrictions imposed on the exercise of the right to free speech.
Conclusions
Commercial speech comes in many shapes and forms, in many variables. A considerable difficulty in categorising and defining this type (or types) of speech leads to an uncertainty with regard to the scope of its protection. Most commentators on the notion of commercial speech stick with the question whether advertising can be accorded a level of protection equal to political or artistic speech. The thesis put forward in this paper is that an intermediate category of speech has to be singled out, which is a mix of commercial self-interest and comment on issues of public concern. The increasing presence of businesses in the society with their growing involvement in debates on issues of public concern cannot be ignored. The commercialisation of political life and politicisation of commercial life make the distinction between political and commercial not easy. The mere fact that a business entity, in its own name, takes position on a particular issue, cannot automatically lead to the denial of the right to freedom of speech. It has nevertheless proved to be hard to find a point of equilibrium between the rights of commercial actors to freely express their opinion and the requirements of protecting the public, consumers and other competitors against unfair or deceptive practices. Indeed, the commercial statements, even partly commercial are more resistant then political or artistic speech. The commercial actors will always speak - they have to in order to earn money. It may support the thesis that commercial speech even including some non-commercial statements shall be less protected. The possibility of developing some intermediate liability regime for mixed statement should not be excluded.
It has been stated that commercial speech should be defined with reference to a set of characteristics (speaker, content and context). Some hints can be decoded from the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights and German courts. The German courts put an emphasis on the purpose of speech. In Hertel and Barthold cases, the European Court of Human Rights weighed the commercial and non-commercial elements by applying the “public debate” test. Within its framework the question as to whether or not the contested speech can contribute to the public debate has to be answered. Similarly, commercial speech has been clearly recognised in the Community legal order as meriting protection. This recognition is based on the ECtHR’s interpretation of the scope of application of Art. 10 ECHR. In the Karner judgment, the ECJ clearly laid foundations for the “public debate” test in the Community law context. The comparison of the attitudes to commercial speech applied by the two European courts – the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights – reveals a far reaching coherence of these systems of fundamental rights protection.

1 Müller v. Switzerland [1988] 13 EHRR 212, para 27.

2 Munro, The Value of Commercial Speech, (2003) 3 Cambridge Law Journal, 138.

3 Markt Intern Verlag GmbH and Klaus Beermann v. Germany [1989] 12 EHRR 161.

4 An extensive, comparative study analysing the constitutional parameters of advertising, has been carried out in a form of research project initiated in 1992 by Confederation of European Community Cigarette Manufactures. The project has been co-ordinated by Professor Wassilios Skouris from the Thessaloniki Centre of International and European Economic Law. National reports were published in 1994 in: Skouris (ed.), Advertising and Constitutional Rights in Europe (1994).

5 Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 US 748 (1976).

6 Ibid., at 770.

7 Ibid., at 763.

8 Markt Intern v. Germany (supra note 3).

9 Hertel v. Switzerland [1998] 28 EHRR 534.

10 OLG München, Urt. v. 10.12.2003, NJW 2004; LG München I, Urt. v. 18.02.2003, NJW 2003, 1046.

11 Virginia State Board of Pharmacy (supra note 5) 762; see also Edenfield v. Fane, 507 US 761, 767 (1993); Lorillard Tobacco Co. V. Reilly, 533 US 525, 544 (2001); United States v. United Foods, Inc., 533 US 405, 409 (2001).

12 Nike, Inc., et al. v. Marc Kasky, On Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court of California, Brief of Amicus Curiae, Centre for Individual Freedom in support of Petitioners, February 28, 2003, No. 02-575, p. 6.

13 Kozinski/Banner, Who’s Afraid of Commercial Speech, (1990) 76 Virginia Law Review, 638; Virginia State Board of Pharmacy (supra note 5).

14 Ibid., at 638.

15 Ibid., at 638.

16 Ibid., at 638.

17 Central Hudson Gas and Electricity Corporation v. Public Service Commission, 447 US 557, 561 (1980).

18 Marc Kasky v. Nike, Inc., et al., 27 Cal. 4th 939.

19 539 US 1 (2003).

20 Marc Kasky v. Nike, Inc., et al. (supra note 18).

21 Nike, Inc., et al. v. Marc Kasky, On Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court of California, Brief of Amicus Curiae, Centre for Individual Freedom in support of Petitioners, February 28, 2003, No. 02-575, p. 3.

22 Howard, The Constitutionality of Deceptive Speech Regulations: Replacing the Commercial Speech Doctrine with a Tort-Based Relational Framework, (1991) 41 Case Western Reserve Law Review, 1136.

23 Müller v. Switzerland (supra note 1), para 27.

24 Munro, The Value of Commercial Speech, (2003) 3 Cambridge Law Journal, 138.

25 Markt Intern v. Germany (supra note 3).

26 Jayawickrama, The Judicial Application of Human Rights Law National, Regional and International Jurisprudence (2002) p. 677.

27 Casado Coca v Spain [1994] 18 EHRR 1.

28 Barthold v Germany [1985] 7 EHRR 383, Casado Coca (supra note 27) para 35.

29 Jayawickrama (supra note 26), p. 677.

30 Markt Intern v Germany (supra note 3), joint dissenting opinion of Judges Golcuklu, Pettiti, Russo, Spielmann, De Meyer, Carrillo Salcedo and Valticos.

31 Barthold (supra note 28) para 61.

32 Barthold v Germany (supra note 28). See also: Jayawickrama (supra note 26), p. 681, Ovey/White, The European Convention on Human Rights (3rd edn. 2001) p. 276, Reid, A Practitioner’s Guide to the European Convention on Human Rights (1998) p. 239.

33 Markt Intern v. Germany (supra note 3).

34 Ibid., para 202 – 03.

35 Clement/Mole/Simmons, European Human Rights. Taking a Case under the Convention (1999), p. 194.

36 Markt Intern v. Germany, (supra note 3).

37 Jakubowski v. Germany [1994] 19 EHRR 64.

38 1 BvR 108/80 and others [Entscheidungen des Bundesverfassungsgerichts, volume 62, pp. 230-248] as cited in Markt Intern v. Germany (supra note 3), para 19; see also: ”Reminder Notice” case, BVerfGE 62, 230 (1982).

39 Jakubowski v. Germany (supra note 37), para 19.

40 Ellger, The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and German Private Law, in: Friedmann/Barak-Erez, Human Rights in Private Law (2001), p. 174.

41Hertel v. Switzerland (supra note 9).

42 Ibid., para 47.

43 Scheyli, Die Abgrenzung zwischen ideellen und kommerziellen Informationsgehalten als Bemessungsgrundlage der „margin of appreciation“ im Rahmen von Art. 10 EMRK, EuGRZ 2003, p. 457.

44 Weber, Menschenrechte. Texte und Praxis (2004), p. 338.

45 Barthold v. Germany (supra note 28).

46 Demuth v. Switzerland (2004) 38 EHRR 20.

47 Ibid., para 42.

48 Ibid., para 42.

49 Demuth v. Switzerland (supra note 46), dissenting opinion of Judge Joerundsson, p. 435.

50 Ibid., p. 436.

51 Ibid., para H9.

52 Markt Intern v. Germany (supra note 3), para 55.

53 For a discussion on the impact of the Charter of Fundamental Rights on the internal market law see: Weatherill, The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Internal Market, Francisco Lucas Pires Working Papers Series on European Constitutionalism, Working Paper 2003/03, Lisboa.

54 Craig/De Burca, EU Law, Text, Cases, and Materials (3rd edn. 2003) pp. 210 et seq.; De Burca, Human Rights: The Charter and Beyond, Jean Monnet Working Paper No.10/01, p. 10 et seq.; Clapham, A Human Rights Policy for the European Community (1990) 10 YBEL 309.

55 ERT v. Dimotiki Case C-260/89 [1991] ECR I-2925; [1994] 4 C.M.L.R. 546, para 42 et seq; see also: Familiapress Case C-368/95 [1997] ECR I-3689, [1997] 3 C.M.L.R. 1329, para 24.

56 Ibid., para 45.

57 Germany v. Parliament Case C-376/98 [2000] ECR I-8419; [2000] 3 C.M.L.R. 1175

58 See: Nold KG v. Commission, Case 4/73 [1974] ECR 491.

59 For criticism see: Triantafyllou, The European Charter of Fundamental Rights and the “Rule of Law”: Restricting Fundamental Rights by Referrence, (2002) 39 CMLR, 53.

60 The prerequisite that the limits imposed on rights must be justified by the overall objective pursued by the Community, on condition that the substance of these rights is left untouched, has been established by the ECJ. See: Nold KG v. Commission (supra note 58), para 14.

61 Lemmens, The Relationship between the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and the ECHR: Substantive Aspects, (2001) 8 MJ, 49; Lenaerts/de Smijter, The Charter and the Role of the European Courts, (2001) 8 MJ, 49; Lenaerts/de Smijter, A “Bill of Rights” for the European Union, (2001) CMLR, 290 et seq.; Tulkens, Towards a Greater Normative Coherence in Europe: The Implications of the Draft Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, (2000) 21 HRLJ, 329; Parmar, International Human Rights Law and the EU Charter, (2001) 8 MJ, 351, McCrudden, The Future of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Jean Monnet Working Paper No.10/01, p. 17 et seq.; Andrej Victor Mykola Wasyl Busch, Die Bedeutung der Europäischen Menschenrechtskonvention für den Grundrechtsschutz in der Europäiachen Union (2003).

62 Art. 53 ECHR: Nothing in this Convention shall be construed as limiting or derogating from any of the human rights and fundamental freedoms which may be ensured under the laws of any High Contracting Party or under any other agreement to which it is a Party.

63 Text of the explanations relating to the complete text of the Charter as set out in CHARTE 4487/00 CONVENT 50, Brussels, 11 October 2000, CHARTE 4473/00 CONVENT 49.

64 For analysis of the problem of accession, in particular Opinion 2/94 (Opinion 2/94 on Accession of the Community to the ECHR [1996] ECR I-1759), see: Toth, The European Union and Human Rights: the Way Forward, (1997) CMLR 491 – 529; De Burca, Human Rights: The Charter and Beyond, Jean Monnet Working Paper No.10/01, p. 8; Craig/De Burca, (supra note 53), chapter 8; Krueger, Reflections Concerning Accession of the European Communities to the European Convention on Human Rights, (2002) 21 Penn State International Law Review, 89 - 99; Imbert, Speech at the Judges’ Symposium: The Council of Europe’s European Convention on Human Rights and the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, Luxembourg (16.09.2002), available at http://www.coe.int; Lemmens, The Relationship between the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and the ECHR: Substantive Aspects, (2001) MJ, 49; Krzeminska, Przystąpienie Unii Europejskiej do Europejskiej Konwencji o Ochronie Praw Człowieka i Podstawowych Wolności, (2005) Radca Prawny, pp. 5 – 11; Wetzel, Improving Fundamental Rights Protection in the European Union: Resolving the Conflict and Confusion between the Luxembourg and Strasbourg Courts, (2003) Fordham Law Review, 2823; Andrej Victor Mykola Wasyl Busch, Die Bedeutung der Europäischen Menschenrechtskonvention für den Grundrechtsschutz in der Europäiachen Union (2003).

65 Case C-376/98 (supra note 56), para 54.

66 Ibid., para 55.

67 Opinion of Advocate General Fennelly, Case C-376/98 (supra note 56), para 153.

68 Ibid., para 154.

69 Weatherill, The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Internal Market, Francisco Lucas Pires Working Papers Series on European Constitutionalism 2003, p. 36.

70 Ibid., p. 36.

71 Opinion of Advocate General Fennelly, Case C-376/98 (supra note 56), para 155.

72 Once again the reference will be made to the opinion of Advocate General Fennelly on this matter. For the sake of argument, in order to discuss the problem of constitutional protection of commercial speech, Advocate Fennelly assumed (contrary to what he has concluded in sections V(i) and (iii) to (v) of his opinion) that Tobacco Advertising Directive was a lawful and proportionate mean to pursue internal market objectives (Opinion of Advocate General Fennelly, Case C-376/98 (supra note 56), para 152).

73 Ibid., para 156.

74 Ibid., para 157.

75 Sunday Times v. United Kingdom, judgment of 26 April 1979, Series A, No 30, (1979-80) 2 EHRR 245; Observer and Guardian v. United Kingdom, judgment of 26 November 1991, Series A, No 216, (1992) 14 EHRR 153, para 70 – 71 (71. The adjective 'necessary' within the meaning of Article 10(2) of the Convention is not synonymous with 'indispensable' or as flexible as ' reasonable' or 'desirable', but it implies the existence of a pressing social need. 72. The notion of necessity implies that the interference of which complaint is made corresponds to this pressing social need, that it is proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued and that the reasons given by the national authorities to justify it are relevant and sufficient.); Barthold v. Germany, [1985] 7 E.H.R.R. 383, para 55.

76 Opinion of Advocate General Fennelly, Case C-376/98 (supra note 56), para 158; Markt Intern v. Germany (supra note 3), para 37; Groppera v. Switzerland, judgement of 28 March 1990, Series A, No 173, para 55.

77 Opinion of Advocate General Jacobs, Case C-245/01 RTL Television GmbH v Niedersächsische Landesmedienanstalt für privaten Rundfunk, [2003] ECR I-0000, para 54.

78 Opinion of Advocate General Fennelly, Case C-376/98 (supra note 56), para 158.

79 Ibid., para 159.

80 Craig/De Burca, (supra note 53); Pernice, Grundrechtsgehalte im Europäischen Gemeinschaftsrecht (1979); Cassese/Clapham/Weiler (Eds.), Human Rights and the European Community ( Vol. 3 1991); Von Bogdandy, The European Union as Human Rights Organisation? Human Rights and the Core of the European Union, (2000)CMLR, pp. 1307 – 1338; De Burca, Human Rights: The Charter and Beyond, Jean Monnet Working Paper No.10/01;

81 Weatherill, The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Internal Market, Francisco Lucas Pires Working Papers Series on European Constitutionalism 2003, p. 32.

82 Vereinigte Familiapress Zeitungs- und Vertriebs GmbH v. Heinrich Bauer Verlag, Case C-368/95 [1997] ECR I-3689.

83 Weatherill, The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Internal Market, Francisco Lucas Pires Working Papers Series on European Constitutionalism 2003, p. 35.

84 Eugen Schmidberger, Internationale Transporte und Planzüge v. Republic of Austria, Case C-112/00, [2003] ECR I-5659, para 77.

85 Ibid., para 6 et seq.

86 Opinion of Advocate General Jacobs, Schmidberger (supra note 84), para 89.

87 Omega Spielhallen- und Automatenaufstellung-GmbH v. Oberbürgemeisterin der Bundesstadt Bonn, ECJ Case C-36/02 [2005] 1 CMLR 5.

88 Ibid., para 48.

89 Commission v. France, Case C-265/95, [1997] ECR I-6959.

90 Schmidberger (supra note 84), para 82 – 90.

91 Demuth v. Switzerland (supra note 46), para H9.

92 Herbert Karner Industrie-Auktionen GmbH and. Troostwijk GmbH, ECJ Case C-71/02 [2004] 2 CMLR 5.

93 Ibid., para 9.

94 Ibid., para 51.

95 Ibid., para 52.





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