Federal Court Says Ban on Alcohol-Related Advertising in College Publications Violates Free Speech

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
April 1, 2008 12:00 am

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ACLU Filed Suit on Behalf of Student Newspapers at Virginia Tech and UVA

CONTACT: Kent Willis (o) 804/644-8080, (c) 804/399-4191, kwillis@acluva.org

Rebecca K. Glenberg (804) 644-8080

Richmond, VA – A U.S. District Court in Richmond ruled yesterday that the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board’s restrictions on alcohol-related advertisements in college publications are an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

ABC lawyers maintained that the rules were put in place to reduce illegal consumption of alcohol by students, but the court said there was no evidence that the advertising ban had any effect on underage drinking and that it was clear that there were other legitimate ways the state could reduce student drinking, including educational programs, increased taxation on alcohol, and counter-advertising.

“As the court points out, the ACLU has no interest in promoting underage drinking,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “But we do have a strong interest in protecting the right of free speech. When the government curbs speech, it has to show that it serves an important societal purpose. There was simply no evidence whatsoever that limiting advertising in this way reduced alcohol consumption by students.”

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech, the owner of Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times, and the University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily. Both claimed that the ban on alcohol advertising unfairly interfered with their ability to raise revenues needed to operate the papers.

The ACLU of Virginia’s challenge was similar to a case brought in Pennsylvania in 2004. There the University of Pittsburgh’s student paper, Pitt News, challenged restrictions on alcohol advertising and prevailed when a federal appeals court held that the restrictions violated the First Amendment right to freedom of the press because they unjustifiably imposed a burden on media associated with universities and colleges but not on other media.

The ABC regulations struck down by the court prohibit the advertising of beer, wine, and mixed drinks in college student publications unless they are in the context of an ad for a “dining establishment” and limited to the words “A.B.C. on-premises”, “beer,” “wine”, “mixed beverages” or “cocktails.”

The case is Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech v. Swecker. The ruling from the U.S. District Court in Richmond can be found at www.acluva.org. ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg and ACLU cooperating attorney Frank Feibelman of Richmond represented Collegiate Times and the Cavalier Daily.

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