A somewhat esoteric Supreme Court case on Tuesday about data mining by drug companies turned into a debate over a fundamental First Amendment principle that has much engaged the justices lately: What role may the government play in regulating the marketplace of ideas?

In assessing the Vermont law at issue Tuesday (Sorrell v. IMS Health, No. 10-779), which bars some but not all uses of prescription drug data, several justices indicated that they viewed government efforts to alter the mix of available information as constitutionally problematic.

That principle animated last term’s decision in Citizens United, which struck down part of a federal law regulating speech about politics by corporations and unions. The tenor of Tuesday’s arguments suggested that a majority of the justices had similar concerns about the Vermont law, which regulates the use of information collected about doctors by records kept by pharmacies.

The case is not about patients’ privacy rights, as individual information about them is meant to be stripped from the data. Rather, the Vermont law restricts tailored efforts to market drugs to doctors aided by databases showing what medicines they have been prescribing.

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