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Supreme Court will hear case on free speech rights of shoe company

By William Mears

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a free speech case about whether a shoe company can be sued for a controversial advertising and publicity campaign.

Nike, the popular maker of athletic footwear and apparel, was sued over its campaign to counter allegations it used Asian sweatshops to produce its shoes. Nike sent out brochures outlining its position, as well as press releases and letters to newspaper editors.

A San Francisco activist filed suit, claiming Nike lied about the wages and working conditions of employees contracted by the company.

The California Supreme Court had decided Nike could be sued despite the company's argument that its public relations campaign was protected free speech. The California court characterized the campaign as "commercial speech," which has historically received less protection from the courts -- including from the Supreme Court -- than other forms of speech such as political protest.

A trial in the case has not been held, pending the outcome of any Supreme Court ruling. Media organizations, including CNN and Time Inc., claim the ruling could keep reporters from getting candid, complete information from businesses over profits, safety and other issues because it would make those companies fearful of lawsuits. They have filed legal briefs supporting Nike.

Nike also has the support of many businesses and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has filed supporting briefs.

Opponents of Nike's campaign say the ruling sends a strong message to businesses that they must be honest and accurate in their advertising and public relations.

No date has been set for justices to hear arguments in the case, but it probably will be scheduled sometime this spring. A ruling in the case is expected by June.

The case is Nike v. Kasky (No. 02-0575).

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