Global Freedom of Expression

Tracy Rifle and Pistol v. Harris

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Pamphlets / Posters / Banners, Public Speech
  • Date of Decision
    February 23, 2016
  • Outcome
    Affirmed Lower Court
  • Case Number
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Appellate Court
  • Type of Law
    Administrative Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Content Regulation / Censorship, Commercial Speech
  • Tags
    Content-Based Restriction, Advertising

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Court of Appeals in the Ninth Circuit affirmed a District Court decision denying a preliminary injunction to stay the enforcement of California Penal Code Section 26820 which prohibits gun dealers from displaying gun advertisements.


The Plaintiffs, Tracy Rifle and Pistol LLC, challenged a 91-year-old California law. The law prohibits dealers from displaying gun advertisements. It states “No handgun or imitation handgun, or placard advertising the sale or other transfer thereof, shall be displayed in any part of the premises where it can readily be seen from the outside.”

During the District Court proceedings, the Plaintiffs argued that Section 26820 of the California Penal Code violated their free speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and sought an injunction to prevent the Defendants, the California Bureau of Firearms and Attorney General, from enforcing the section. The District Court analyzed whether this content-based restriction on commercial speech was justified according to the Central Hudson test: First, the Court must determine whether the expression is protected by the First Amendment. For commercial speech, the speech must concern a lawful activity and must not be misleading. Second, the Court must determine whether the governmental interest is substantial. If the answers to both inquiries are affirmative, the Court must then determine whether the regulation directly advances the governmental interest asserted, and whether the regulation is not more extensive than is necessary to serve that interest.

The District Court found that that Section 26820 did not directly advance a substantial government interest and that the restriction was more extensive than necessary to achieve that interest. It was also found that the Plaintiffs were likely to suffer irreparable harm resulting from the potential infringement of their First Amendment rights, but that the magnitude of the potential harm was minimal due to the commercial nature of the speech, which limited the scope of the restriction. Further, the District Court found that the balance of equities did not tip in Plaintiffs’ favor because, under these circumstances, serious public safety risks were implicated, and accordingly, the harm to the Plaintiffs was relatively slight. Thus, the injunction was denied and the Plaintiffs appealed.

Decision Overview

Judges Thomas, Schroeder, and Nguyen delivered the judgment for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Circuit Court held that, in reviewing the District Court’s denial of a motion for a preliminary injunction for abuse of discretion, it would reverse the decision only if the decision resulted from factual findings that were “illogical, implausible, or without support in the inferences that may be drawn from the record.” [p.2] The Circuit Court found that the District Court did not abuse its discretion and applied the correct legal framework to analyze the content-based restrictions on commercial speech. Therefore, the Circuit Court held that it could not determine that the District Court’s findings were illogical, implausible, or without support in the record. Thus, the denial of preliminary injunction was affirmed.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

This case presents a mixed outcome. The Court found that, on one hand, the California regulation in question did restrict the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech. However, given the commercial nature of the speech and the public interest at stake, the Circuit Court found that the District Court’s restriction was not “illogical” and was therefore a permissible application of existing First Amendment precedent.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., United States v. Hinkson, 585 F.3d 1247 (2009)
  • U.S., Winter v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7 (2008)
  • U.S., Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of N.Y., 447 U.S. 557 (1980)
  • U.S., Bd. of Trs. of State Univ. of N.Y. v. Fox, 492 U.S. 469 (1989)

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Official Case Documents

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