Yesterday, in a move that is sure to delay if not completely halt FDA efforts to issue guidance on the regulation of drug promotion on the Internet and social media, the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) and Pfizer filed a brief with U.S. District Court in Washington, DC.

I was so pre-occupied getting the March 2010 issue of Pharma Marketing News out to my 7,300 subscribers that I completely missed this press release that came in my email inbox last night around 7 PM.

The press release (find it here) states:

(Pfizer, Inc. v. United States, No. 10-223)

“The Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) today urged the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to uphold First Amendment rights by limiting the authority of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue guidance barring the free speech of drug manufacturers on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc.

“In a brief filed in support of a motion by Pfizer, Inc. for a preliminary injunction against FDA enforcement action, WLF argued that FDA has not provided sufficient justification for interfering with such speech when directed to consumers on social media sites.

“For FDA to regulate in this sensitive area through guidance instead of rulemaking inherently raises First Amendment concerns because of the nature of the process used to develop guidance, and the nature of the Agency pronouncements that result. A particular concern here relates to vagueness. A law “must be carefully drawn or be authoritatively construed to punish only unprotected speech and not be susceptible of application to protected expression.” Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518, 522 (1972). “Because First Amendment freedoms need breathing space to survive, government may regulate in the area only with narrow specificity.” NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 433 (1963); see also Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 366 (1964) (holding a loyalty oath unconstitutional on vagueness grounds).

WLF argued that guidance documents purporting to regulate speech have engendered extensive litigation. Perhaps the best-known First Amendment litigation against FDA involved a trio of guidance documents that Agency personnel developed in the 1990s. WLF v. Friedman, 13 F. Supp. 2d 51 (D.D.C. 1998), appeal dismissed sub nom. WLF v. Henney, 202 F.3d 331 (D.C. Cir. 2000). There, as here, FDA was confronted with entirely new types of communicative activity. Rather than undertake notice-and-comment rulemaking, FDA sought to establish a new set of regulatory expectations through guidance documents, leading to years of litigation and uncertainty. Pfizer believes it would be imprudent for FDA to repeat this pattern of seeking to address an entirely new field of conduct, where First Amendment rights are clearly at stake, without the discipline that comes with a rulemaking proceeding.

Let me interrupt here to say that I am NOT not surprised that Pfizer would do this because the world’s biggest drug company telegraphed its intention in the comments it sent to the FDA in response to Docket No. FDA‐2009‐N‐0441 regarding Promotion of FDA‐Regulated Medical Products Using the Internet and Social Media Tools (see “Pfizer Asks for New FDA Regulations, Not Guidance, for Social Media“). In those comments Pfizer called upon the FDA to develop new regulations for the Internet and social media rather than issuing guidance that puts an “interpretative gloss” on existing rules.

The March issue of Pharma Marketing News is 100% devoted to a masterful summary of the drug industry’s comments to the FDA that compares comments from different drug companies with one another, extracting nuggets of information, opinions, and novel ideas. It includes the following articles:

You can download all these FREE when you subscribe here.

Here’s the remainder of the WLF press release (find it here):

“Further, WLF argued that FDA cannot use statements contained in guidance documents as the basis for enforcement action. See Gen. Elec. Co. v. EPA, 290 F.3d 377 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (holding agency guidance was legislative rule subject to APA where it imposed binding obligations on agency and applicants). Guidance also cannot be used to allow manufacturer communications in online media that would contravene existing regulations. Even if regulations already in effect could be read to permit particular activities, FDA would have to engage in new rulemaking in order to alter its interpretation of an existing rule. See, e.g., Alaska Prof’l Hunters Ass’n v. FAA, 177 F.3d 1030, 1033-34 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

“In its brief urging the court to enjoin FDA efforts to regulate truthful speech through guidance, WLF argued that the First Amendment fully protects the right of Pfizer employees to engage in conversations with consumers on social media sites and via Twitter.

“WLF filed its brief on behalf of several organizations representing patients that have a significant interest in encouraging open communications between themselves, their doctors and Pfizer — the National Periodic Idiotosis Association and the National Flagrant Flatulence Foundation. WLF also filed its brief on behalf of itself. WLF filed its brief with the pro bono assistance of Coleen Schmucksky, Paul Eatmyshorts, and Brad Klassaction, attorneys with the Washington, D.C. office of Snidely Awesome LLP.

“WLF is a public interest law and policy center with supporters in all 50 states. WLF has appeared in numerous federal and state courts in cases involving FDA efforts to restrict the First Amendment speech rights of manufacturers, doctors, and patients. As a result of a successful WLF challenge to FDA speech restrictions, FDA is permanently enjoined from attempting to restrict certain types of manufacturer speech on social media sites”

I hope you enjoy the remainder of your April Fool’s day!

NOTE: The legal language quoted in this “press release” was copied verbatim from comments that Pfizer sent to the FDA. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume Pfizer and/or WLF may ACTUALLY take the sort of action described here. It probably would not happen, however, until AFTER the FDA issues guidance and ONLY IF Pfizer and other drug companies are not satisfied with it.