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The Supreme Court, in a decision that could undermine President Clinton's effort to limit cigarette advertising, ruled Monday that states may not ban all advertising that refers to liquor prices.

The court struck down a Rhode Island ban aimed at promoting sobriety. The justices ruled unanimously that the ban violates free-speech rights.The full impact of Monday's ruling, reached by splintered voting and four separate opinions, may not be known until lower courts begin interpreting it. But it appeared that the court significantly added to the protection afforded commercial speech.

The justices had been told many states have laws that ban or in some way limit liquor-price advertising. Listed as examples were Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Although the Rhode Island controversy focused solely on advertising that referred to the prices of alcoholic beverages, the court's decision seemingly applies to government efforts to regulate other potentially harmful products or activities.

Writing the court's main opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said Rhode Island "has failed to carry its heavy burden of justifying its complete ban on price advertising."

Clinton and the federal Food and Drug Administration have proposed rules, opposed by the tobacco industry, that would forbid cigarette brand advertising at sports events and on T-shirts and other goods.

Proposed rules would ban tobacco billboards within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds and limit the use of pictures and colors in cigarette ads.

Rhode Island law allows advertising for alcoholic beverages but since 1956 has required publishers and broadcasters to exclude any mention of prices, or even the word "sale."

When the case was argued before the Supreme Court last November, Rhode Island's lawyer, Rebecca Partington, said the state expected its ad ban to keep prices higher than if price advertising were allowed. The goal, she said, is "promotion of temperance."

Partington had argued that state control over alcohol is unique because the Constitution's 21st Amendment, which ended Prohibition, gave states power to control liquor sales or even ban them.

"A total advertising ban (on liquor) would be constitutional," Partington had told the justices.

But Evan Lawson, a Boston lawyer for liquor stores that challenged the state law, said Rhode Island cannot ban speech about something it does not ban.

Monday the court agreed with Lawson.

"Such an advertising ban is an abridgement of speech protected by the First Amendment and . . . it is not shielded from constitutional scrutiny by the 21st Amendment," Stevens wrote.

In a key part of his opinion, Stevens said regulations that entirely suppress commercial speech to pursue a policy not connected to protecting consumers against false or misleading information must be reviewed with "special care."

Such blanket bans are invalid unless the speech itself was flawed in some way - either false or misleading, he said.

"When a state entirely prohibits the dissemination of truthful, non-misleading commercial messages for reasons unrelated to the preservation of a fair bargaining process, there is far less reason to depart from the rigorous review that the First Amendment generally demands," Stevens said.

He was joined in that part of his opinion by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In brief concurring opinions, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said the Rhode Island ban should fall. But they disagreed with Stevens as to why.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in a concurring opinion for herself, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer, also agreed that the Rhode Island law must fall.

But they favored a more narrowly focused ruling that would not go beyond what the court has ruled previously in commercial-speech cases.

In all, the vote was 9-0 to strike down Rhode Island's advertising ban.

The price-advertising ban was challenged by a Johnston, R.I., liquor store, 44 Liquormart Inc., and by Peoples Super Liquor Stores, which sells liquor to Rhode Island residents from stores in two Massachusetts stores.



Other court action Monday

- Rejected a bid by Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski to speed up consideration of his attempt to avoid prosecution because of news leaks.

- Turned down an appeal seeking disability and death benefits for Vietnam veterans who suffer from cancer blamed on exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange.

- Agreed to use the case of a Mississippi widow whose husband's death was partially caused by asbestos exposure to resolve a key issue over maritime-industry benefits.

- Agreed to use an Arizona case to decide whether parents may sue their state governments for not doing enough to help them collect child-support payments.

- Rejected an appeal by Florida aimed at forcing the federal government to improve immigration enforcement or repay the state's cost of social services to illegal aliens.

- Rejected the appeal of an artist barred by Amtrak from putting a political advertisement on a billboard in New York's Penn Station.

- Refused to let police at prisons detain prospective visitors for a "canine sniff" of their cars if they object and seek to leave without entering the prison.