California’s requirement that glyphosate-containing products display a carcinogen warning violates the First Amendment, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled in a 2-1 decision on November 7, 2023. The decision in the case Nat’l Assoc. of Wheat Growers v. Bonta affirmed a district court’s summary judgment and injunction against the requirement.
Proposition 65 (known as “Prop 65”) requires that any product intentionally containing a chemical on California’s list of known carcinogens warn customers of the product’s carcinogenicity. Glyphosate, one of the most widely used herbicides and the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup, was automatically added to the list of Prop 65 carcinogens following a 2015 determination by the International Agency for Research on Cancer that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Other organizations, such as EPA, have not found that glyphosate poses a risk to humans, however.
According to the court, compelled commercial speech must pass intermediate scrutiny unless it is “purely factual and uncontroversial information,” in which case a lesser level of scrutiny applies. The panel found that this exemption was not applicable because whether glyphosate is carcinogenic is subject to scientific debate. The panel then determined that the labeling requirement did not survive intermediate scrutiny because “warn[ing] consumers of a potential ‘risk’ never confirmed by any regulatory body” does not directly advance California’s interest in preserving public health.
The warning was previously struck down by a California district court on the grounds that its phrasing would be misleading to customers, it was not purely factual and uncontroversial, and a more equivocal warning would likely not comply with Prop 65. In this case, the panel analyzed three new proposed warning messages from California’s Attorney General and another from California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) but concluded that these warnings were also not purely factual and uncontroversial.
Judge Consuelo M. Callahan wrote for the panel and was joined by Judge Patrick J. Bumatay. Writing in the dissent, Judge Mary M. Schroeder argued that, at minimum, the new OEHHA warning should be remanded to the district court. Schroeder argued that the majority applied inappropriate precedent in determining what makes a statement uncontroversial, failed to examine the actual content of the warning, and ignored the fact that EPA’s most recent determination that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer was vacated by the Ninth Circuit in Nat. Res. Def. Council v. U.S. Env’t Prot. Agency (2022) because it was not supported by substantial evidence.