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On February 25, the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas granted in part and denied in part a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment in an action concerning whether a state statute that bans credit card surcharges violates the First Amendment. Kansas law prohibits merchants from imposing a surcharge on customers who pay with credit cards instead of cash, and allows merchants to offer discounts to consumers who pay with cash. The plaintiff, a payment processing technology company, provides “software that allows merchants to display prices, including cost surcharges on purchases made by credit card,” which “allows consumers to comparison shop among payment types.” The plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of the law, claiming it is an unconstitutional restriction on commercial speech since it “effectively limits” what the plaintiff and merchants “can treat as the ‘regular price’ of an item and the corresponding information about prices and credit card fees that can be conveyed to consumers.” The Kansas attorney general—who has the authority to enforce the state’s no-surcharge statute—countered, among other things, that the statute furthers substantial state interests by (i) encouraging merchants to charge lower prices to customers who pay with cash; (ii) lowering the amount of consumer credit card debt through the use of cash discounts; and (iii) providing benefits to merchants by encouraging cash purchases, thereby allowing them to receive immediate payments, avoid credit card fees, and incur lower costs.
The court disagreed, ruling that none of the AG’s arguments advanced a substantial state interest—a requirement in order to not be considered a violation of the First Amendment. “Plaintiff's desire to display a single price while informing customers that credit card purchasers will be charged an additional fee would logically tend to support whatever interest the state may have in encouraging lower prices for cash customers,” the court wrote. “The statute nevertheless effectively prohibits this type of disclosure. Clearly, this restriction on speech is more extensive than necessary to further the asserted state interest.” Moreover, the court noted that “‘surcharges and discounts are nothing more than two sides of the same coin; a surcharge is simply a ‘negative’ discount, and a discount is a ‘negative’ surcharge.”
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