February 01, 2003
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio February 2003 Current Issue
February 2003 lawandplan.gifPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner

By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.


How to handle unwelcome exhibitors and participants at trade shows

From time to time, trade show sponsors have to deal with potential participants/exhibitors who might not be welcome at the event. But before summarily kicking them out, planners must consider the possible legal ramifications. For instance, would doing so result in an antitrust challenge? Could it be construed as an attempt to restrain competition?

Taking this situation one step further, what if someone wants to distribute literature outside the exhibit hall or in the headquarters hotel but refuses to participate as a regular exhibitor or supplier? Antitrust laws seem to view as a restraint of trade either the exclusion of an exhibitor or the denial of the company’s right to distribute information at the event if there is no other opportunity for advancing their product or material. But in 99.9 percent of the cases, this is not the resulting ruling. Why? Because there are other avenues open.

Basically, antitrust laws are designed to protect competition, not competitors. You might maintain the right, from an antitrust point of view, to prohibit or limit those who want to exhibit or distribute materials, so long as the exercise of the right has a reasonable business argument.

Going beyond antitrust laws, someone who wants to distribute literature might argue his First Amendment rights are being violated if he’s blocked. In a case decided almost 60 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said First Amendment rights supercede any anticompetitive action that might be taken in the marketplace.

With meetings and trade shows, however, the law views “commercial speech” a bit differently. There are several cases before the Supreme Court that could revise the definition of commercial speech. For now, we live with what’s already on the books.

In one case, the court held that convention center walkways are not a “public forum” and therefore a trade show promoter could exclude certain forms of commercial speech. The walkways were only there to manage pedestrian traffic flowing at large, privately organized events held in the publicly owned convention center.

The court also reasoned that restricting the distribution of unauthorized show dailies on walkways advanced a substantial government interest by allowing attendees easy entry and exit to the convention center. Nonetheless, the court’s ruling failed to address any antitrust, unfair competition or interference claims by the plaintiff.

In a case in Chicago, an independent publisher of a hockey program wanted to sell copies of his publication outside the United Center during Blackhawks games, while the team published and sold its own programs inside. The court held that the banning of the distribution of competing programs was not an antitrust violation.

But in a related matter, the same publisher wanted to distribute outside the arena a book criticizing the Blackhawks’ ownership and management. Police demanded that he cease sales during hockey games, citing an ordinance that prohibited the selling of merchandise within 1,000 feet of the United Center. The publisher sued the city, claiming this was an unconstitutional prior restraint of free speech. The court agreed, saying the restriction was not narrowly tailored to meet the city’s interest of maintaining safety and pedestrian traffic flow around the United Center.

Too many variables come into play to provide blanket advice in this area. The nature of the event, the goals of the host organization and the location in question are among the many factors to consider. Before taking action and ousting someone, consult your lawyer.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at

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