Virginia Ban on Alcohol Ads in College and University Newspapers Upheld

A federal judge reversed a lower court opinion and held that the state of Virginia could legally restrict the free speech rights of the University of Virginia student newspaper by prohibiting it from accepting ads for alcoholic beverages.

Judge Hannah Lauck admitted that the prohibition against alcohol ads restricts the newspaper’s First Amendment free speech rights but said that the state has “a substantial interest in combating the serious problem of underage drinking and abusive drinking by college students.”

The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) cited a study by Henry Saffer, an economics professor at Kean University, suggesting that a reduction in alcohol ads would reduce student consumption. The judge appears not to have been persuaded by Dr. Saffer’s Saffer’s report that “the vast majority of studies” have found that advertising has no effect on alcohol consumption rates.

The judge similarly appeared unpersuaded by the testimony of economist Dr. Jon P. Nelson of the University of Pennsylvania, who reported that alcohol ads have not been shown to increase alcohol consumption or to lead non-drinkers to begin drinking.

Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times and the University of Virginia’s The Cavalier Daily filed suit against the ABC in 2006, asserting prohibiting alcohol ads not only violates the newspapers’ Constitutional right to free speech, but also costs the newspapers valuable ad revenue. Each newspaper estimated its loss of revenue because of the prohibition to be about $30,000 every year.

A federal appeals court in Pennsylvania overturned a similar prohibition against alcohol ads in college and university newspapers in that state.

The Pennsylvania court noted that the state faces a heavy burden of proof whenever it wants to restrict constitutionally guaranteed free speech rights. However, it had only offered “speculation” and “conjecture” to support its contention that the ad prohibition would reduce the demand for alcoholic beverages by underage students. Indeed, nationally, 70.5% of all college students in the U.S. are of legal drinking age.

The reason the state didn’t provide evidence that restricting advertising would be effective is because the scientific research doesn’t support its speculation that a ban would be effective.

The court also held that the law, which was intended to prevent underage drinking, placed an unfair financial burden on student-run newspapers and would not achieve its purpose.

 

Resources

  • Koon, Samantha. Federal judge upholds alcohol advertising ban in college newspapers. The Daily Progress, December 12, 2012; The week in review: Most constitutionally questionable. The Hook, September 18, 2012; Caruso, David B. Court: State ban on alcohol ads in college newspapers is unconstitutional. Centre Daily Times, July 29, 2004; Alcohol ad ban ruled unconstitutional. KWY TV, CBS 3, 6:41 p.m., July 29, 2004; Strohm. J. Elizabeth. State Act 199 upheld, The Pitt News, February 19, 2003; The Pitt News v. Attorney General of Pennsylvania (No. 03-1725), July 29, 2004 (ca3.uscourts.gov.recentop/week/recprec.htm).

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