Statement of Sean Flynn on Oral Argument of IMS v Sorrell, US Supreme Court
Counsel, NLARx and AARP
Wednesday April 27th, 2011

This statement may be quoted or reprinted in part or full with attribution.

From the argument yesterday, it appears that a key issue in the case is whether regulation of access to government-mandated and government-possessed information are the treated the same under the First Amendment. Under the LAPD decision, the Court upheld a law that restricted access to identifying information in government records for marketing purposes, but not other purposes. The Court showed no inclination to question that holding in this case. IMS argued yesterday that the singling out of commercial marketing for access restrictions in Vermont’s law makes the law illegally discriminatory. Tom Goldstein, the IMS attorney, argued that the distinguishing factor from the LAPD case is that there the government held the information itself whereas in this case prescription records are merely government mandated but privately held. To fall under the LAPD standard allowing the government to block access to government information, including specific restraints from use for marketing, the prescription would have to be held at a government-owned pharmacy, Goldstein argued.

The IMS standard does not square with other federal data confidentiality laws. The Driver Privacy Protection Act, for example, forbids the trade of information from DMV records (government mandated information) even by third parties who later come in possession of the information.

The other big issue appears to be how the intent of the legislature figures. The Court appeared convinced that a primary purpose of the law was to restrain runaway drug prices caused by undue influence of pharmaceutical marketing. Can the state serve this goal through a law that deprives marketers of access to certain non-public information used as a marketing tool? The answer to that question turns on whether use of information to target marketing, as opposed to sharing the information itself, is a form of “speech.” If it is not speech, then the government can regulate it as economic activity for a variety of reasons, including to reduce overall health expenditures.

There was little discussion in oral argument of whether the use of confidential data to target marketing is itself speech. Many of the members of Court appeared to assume that it was, or at least that speech was effected by the law in such a way as to trigger First Amendment scrutiny. But this is new ground for the Court. that the But that issue is likely to figure prominently in any opinion. If every use of information is speech, a very broad range of information confidentiality protections could be threatened by the decision.

Sean M Fiil Flynn
Associate Director
Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property (PIJIP)
American University Washington College of Law
4801 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20016

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