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U.S. District Judge Richard Leon suggested Wednesday that a federal rule that would require cigarette packages to carry graphic warning labels could violate tobacco companies’ free speech rights, Reuters reports.

Last November, Leon granted tobacco companies a temporary injunction that blocked the requirement for the new labels. The Obama Administration has appealed the ruling. According to Reuters, the case ultimately could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In November, Leon said it is likely the companies will win a lawsuit that claims the labels violate First Amendment protections for commercial speech. He said the labels do not have to be put on cigarette packages until the lawsuit is resolved, which could take years.

In September, tobacco manufacturers asked Leon to impose a temporary injunction to block the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) requirement that cigarette packs carry graphic images of the consequences of smoking, including diseased lungs and rotting teeth. The FDA wants the disturbing pictures to cover at least half of the front and back of a cigarette package by October 2012. The FDA also said the images must take up to at least 20 percent of each cigarette ad.

The new cigarette labels are a result of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gave the FDA authority to regulate the content, marketing and sale of tobacco products.

Leon said he will issue his final ruling before April 10, the date when the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia Circuit is scheduled to hear the Obama Administration’s appeal of the judge’s injunction.

At the hearing, Leon suggested that Congress had ignored legal precedents protecting commercial speech from government control, the article notes. “There’s nothing on the record to suggest that Congress gave any clear and thoughtful analysis on the First Amendment implications of this,” Leon said.


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