Alcohol-related ads banned
Pennsylvania college papers try to make sense of a new state law that has damaging potential
PENNSYLVANIA — A law nobody seems to know much about is causing confusion among student journalists.
The state legislature of Pennsylvania passed a law in the waning moments of the 1996 session that places severe constraints on the advertising content of college publications.
Act 199 was introduced by Rep. Mario Civera (R-Upper Darby) and included a clause stating, “No advertisement [for alcoholic or malt beverages] shall be permitted, either directly or indirectly, in any booklet, program book, yearbook, magazine, newspaper, periodical, brochure, circular or other similar publication published by, for or in behalf of any educational institution.”
For college newspaper editors and advisers, the law came as a surprise and no one seems sure exactly what the broad wording means.
“We knew nothing about it until bars started calling us in February and telling us they couldn’t advertise with us,” said Joe Lawley, Director of Student Publications at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).
Lawley explained that the law is not being enforced by prohibiting the ads newspapers accept. Rather, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board contacted establishments with liquor licenses and “told them they aren’t allowed to advertise in student papers.”
Christopher Hoel, lawyer for the Pitt News at the University of Pittsburgh and a specialist in liquor law called the law “extraordinary” and “far-reaching.”
The language is ambiguous enough that it is “tough to know how to comply with it,” he said.
“You can read it to make it unlawful for a high school teacher to have a Time magazine in the teachers’ lounge because it contains alcohol ads,” Hoel said.
He suggested other problem areas. For instance, programs for a Penn State football game may be prohibited from advertising beer; a college advertising a Sunday brunch for alumni may be forbidden to mention that champagne will be served.
“This is this is the broadest [law of this kind] I’ve seen,” Hoel said.
“The people affected most by this are the student media and it’s tough for them to assemble the resources to fight something like this,” Hoel said.
Lawley said the ban is being enforced at IUP. The student newspaper, The Penn, raised $24,000 in revenue from alcohol-related ads between July 1995 and July 1996. That accounted for 10 percent of the paper’s revenue during that time period.
“This is definitely going to hurt us,” Lawley said. “It’s killing us already.”
Other college newspapers in the state have not yet seen the ban enforced, but awareness is growing.
Eric Jacobs, the general manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Daily Pennsylvanian, said he is investigating who it affects and whether it is going to be enforced in the near future.
“It’s not clear whether [the law] would really apply [to a newspaper that is independently operated from the school],” Jacobs said. “It’s not clear that we’re ‘by’ or ‘on behalf’ of the university.”
Business manager Chris Taylor of Penn State’s Daily Collegian said he had not even heard of the law, but said that approximately 25 to 30 percent of the paper’s ads are alcohol-related and might be covered by the ban.
“If this is the case, we have a serious problem,” he said.
While the law poses a potential infringement on the First Amendment rights of college publications, several people are questioning whether the law’s application will serve its original intent. If lawmakers meant to prevent people under the age of 21 from exposure to alcohol-related ads, Lawley says the law is a mistake.
“A good deal of our readership is over the age of 21,” he said.
Applying the ban to publications like a college alumni magazine seems like an unintended consequence as well.
“I’m sure it’s not the intent of the law to not allow the university to publish its alumni magazine,” Jacobs said, adding that the school’s alumni magazine regularly features ads for products such as Absolut Vodka.
Jacobs also said that no clarifications have been made over what ads are still permissible and what are banned. Can a bar advertise if a band is performing? Can the ad list drink specials?
“We’d like to know where the dividing line is,” Jacobs said.
Lawley said that some bars still run ads in The Penn, but usually only when a band is appearing.
“Even those places are pretty intimidated [by the law],” he said. “Three-fourths of the places that formally advertised with us won’t do it at all. They don’t think that it is worth the fines they would get.”
John Feichtel, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers’ Association (PNPA), said the PNPA has met with the state’s Liquor Control Board and is planning its next step while soliciting comment from college papers.
“We are looking into doing something,” he said, “but we haven’t done anything yet.”
Fall 1997, reports