A Judicial Nod to Empirically-Based Regulation

Alden Abbott —  1 March 2018

The cause of basing regulation on evidence-based empirical science (rather than mere negative publicity) – and of preventing regulatory interference with First Amendment commercial speech rights – got a judicial boost on February 26.

Specifically, in National Association of Wheat Growers et al. v. Zeise (Monsanto Case), a California federal district court judge preliminarily enjoined application against Monsanto of a labeling requirement imposed by a California regulatory law, Proposition 65.  Proposition 65 mandates that the Governor of California publish a list of chemicals known to the State to cause cancer, and also prohibits any person in the course of doing business from knowingly and intentionally exposing anyone to the listed chemicals without a prior “clear and reasonable” warning.  In this case, California sought to make Monsanto place warning labels on its popular Roundup weed killer products, stating that glyphosate, a widely-used herbicide and key Roundup ingredient, was known to cause cancer.  Monsanto, joined by various agribusiness entities, sued to enjoin California from taking that action.  Judge William Shubb concluded that there was insufficient evidence that the active ingredient in Roundup causes cancer, and that requiring Roundup to publish warning labels would violate Monsanto’s First Amendment rights by compelling it to engage in false and misleading speech.  Salient excerpts from Judge Shubb’s opinion are set forth below:

[When, as here, it compels commercial speech, in order to satisfy the First Amendment,] [t]he State has the burden of demonstrating that a disclosure requirement is purely factual and uncontroversial, not unduly burdensome, and reasonably related to a substantial government interest. . . .  The dispute in the present case is over whether the compelled disclosure is of purely factual and uncontroversial information. In this context, “uncontroversial” “refers to the factual accuracy of the compelled disclosure, not to its subjective impact on the audience.” [citation omitted]

 On the evidence before the court, the required warning for glyphosate does not appear to be factually accurate and uncontroversial because it conveys the message that glyphosate’s carcinogenicity is an undisputed fact, when almost all other regulators have concluded that there is insufficient evidence that glyphosate causes cancer. . . .

It is inherently misleading for a warning to state that a chemical is known to the state of California to cause cancer based on the finding of one organization [, the International Agency for Research on Cancer] (which as noted above, only found that substance is probably carcinogenic), when apparently all other regulatory and governmental bodies have found the opposite, including the EPA, which is one of the bodies California law expressly relies on in determining whether a chemical causes cancer. . . .  [H]ere, given the heavy weight of evidence in the record that glyphosate is not in fact known to cause cancer, the required warning is factually inaccurate and controversial. . . .

The court’s First Amendment inquiry here boils down to what the state of California can compel businesses to say. Whether Proposition 65’s statutory and regulatory scheme is good policy is not at issue. However, where California seeks to compel businesses to provide cancer warnings, the warnings must be factually accurate and not misleading. As applied to glyphosate, the required warnings are false and misleading. . . .

As plaintiffs have shown that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their First Amendment claim, are likely to suffer irreparable harm absent an injunction, and that the balance of equities and public interest favor an injunction, the court will grant plaintiffs’ request to enjoin Proposition 65’s warning requirement for glyphosate.

The Monsanto Case commendably highlights a little-appreciated threat of government overregulatory zeal.  Not only may excessive regulation fail a cost-benefit test, and undermine private property rights, it may violates the First Amendment speech rights of private actors when it compels inaccurate speech.  The negative economic consequences may be substantial  when the government-mandated speech involves a claim about a technical topic that not only lacks empirical support (and thus may be characterized as “junk science”), but is deceptive and misleading (if not demonstrably false).  Deceptive and misleading speech in the commercial market place reduces marketplace efficiency and reduces social welfare (both consumer’s surplus and producer’s surplus).  In particular, it does this by deterring mutually beneficial transactions (for example, purchases of Roundup that would occur absent misleading labeling about cancer risks), generating suboptimal transactions (for example, purchases of inferior substitutes to Roundup due to misleading Roundup labeling), and distorting competition within the marketplace (the reallocation of market shares among Roundup and substitutes not subject to labeling).  The short-term static effects of such market distortions may be dwarfed by the  dynamic effects, such as firms’ disincentives to invest in innovation (or even participate) in markets subject to inaccurate information concerning the firms’ products or services.

In short, the Monsanto Case highlights the fact that government regulation not only imposes an implicit tax on business – it affirmatively distorts the workings of individual markets if it causes the introduction misleading or deceptive information that is material to marketplace decision-making.  The threat of such distortive regulation may be substantial, especially in areas where regulators interact with “public interest clients” that have an incentive to demonize disfavored activities by private commercial actors – one example being the health and safety regulation of agricultural chemicals.  In those areas, there may be a case for federal preemption of state regulation, and for particularly close supervision of federal agencies to avoid economically inappropriate commercial speech mandates.  Stay tuned for future discussion of such potential legal reforms.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.