Students ask High Court to overturn state ban on alcohol advertising in college publications

PENNSYLVANIA -- A student newspaper asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case in November after a federal appellate court upheld a state law banning the advertising of alcohol in college publications.

The Pitt News petitioned the Supreme Court after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit failed to grant the newspaper's request to hear the case again before the full court. In June, a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit refused to issue a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of Act 199, a state law prohibiting businesses from advertising alcoholic beverages in any publication published or produced "by, for or on behalf of any educational institution."

The panel ruled that the ban did not violate the First Amendment rights of the publication because it is aimed at businesses and advertisers, not newspapers. But The Pitt News claims that although it cannot be prosecuted under Act 199, the loss of advertising revenue from enforcement of the act has reduced the amount of space available for news reporting, which in turn, has infringed upon the paper's freedom of the press, according to court documents.

The court of appeals ruled that the loss of more than $20,000 in ad revenue in one year did not constitute a violation of The Pitt News' First Amendment rights because the loss was not a direct result of the ban. Rather, the court said, the loss of revenue was an indirect consequence of the law.

The ruling suggests that other government agencies could ban the advertising of legal products and services by going after the advertiser instead of the media where those ads would be placed.

Vic Walczak, the executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh American Civil Liberties Union and the attorney representing The Pitt News, said the court's ruling was an unbelievable oversight.

"Frankly, none of us within the [ACLU] can understand how the court ruled as it did," Walczak said. "First Amendment experts around the country have reviewed the decision and are equally confounded with [it]."

Act 199, signed by Gov. Tom Ridge in 1996, was designed to address problems of underage drinking and binge drinking on PennsylvaniaĆ­s college campuses. Violation of the act is a misdemeanor and is investigated and enforced by the state's Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement.

Walczak said he expects the Supreme Court to decide whether it will hear the case by February or March.

reports, Winter 2000-01