Supreme Court decision could weaken states' attempts to ban alcohol ads

May decision bolsters advertisers' First Amendment protections

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A recent Supreme Court decision raises doubt about the constitutionality of government restrictions on alcohol advertising in college newspapers.

The Court in 44 Liquormart v. Rhode Island, 116 S. Ct. 1495 (1996), struck down in May a Rhode Island regulation that had outlawed the advertisement of liquor prices, except on signs and price tags displayed in stores. While the judgment of the Court was unanimous, the justices split in their reasoning, with no one approach receiving a majority of votes.

The case arose when Rhode Island officials fined 44 Liquormart, a state-licensed liquor store chain, $400 after the store ran ads displaying photos of rum and vodka bottles beside the word “WOW,” which the state claimed implied the price of the alcohol.

Despite their different rationales, the justices all agreed with Justice John Paul Stevens that “such an advertising ban is an abridgment of speech protected by the First Amendment and that it is not shielded from constitutional scrutiny by the Twenty-first Amendment.” The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, had long been interpreted as giving states broad regulatory powers over alcohol commerce, free from federal intervention.

Some states, Virginia for example, have enacted bans on alcohol advertising in college newspapers. Others, like New York and Pennsylvania, have proposed legislation or regulations that have ultimately failed. A proposed federal ban on alcohol ads in college newspapers similarly failed to pass in 1989.

According to commercial speech attorney P. Cameron DeVore, college newspapers, whose audiences include a significant portion of readers of legal drinking age, should find the case advantageous in their arguments against state bans on alcohol advertising in college newspapers.

“The reach of 44 should include any statute that purports to say that the advertising of alcoholic beverages is banned,” DeVore said. He warns, however, that since courts are currently hearing cases involving alcohol advertising bans in media with some underage audience, the recent decision is not definitive.

The Supreme Court, a week after the 44 Liquormart decision, vacated the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Anheuser-Busch Inc. v. Schmoke, 116 S. Ct. 1821 (1996), which upheld a Baltimore statute banning billboards advertising alcoholic beverages because minors comprise part of the billboards’ audience. The case is presently before the Fourth Circuit for reconsideration.

Fall 1996, reports