Two college newspapers challenge state regulation prohibiting alcohol ads

VIRGINIA -- Two college student newspapers are challenging the constitutionality of a Virginia state regulation that prohibits college student publications from publishing alcohol ads.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed a lawsuit in the federal district court in Richmond yesterday on behalf of the

Collegiate Times, student newspaper at Virginia Tech, and The Cavalier Daily, student newspaper at the University of Virginia. The lawsuit seeks to overturn Virginia Administrative Code, Section 5-20-40, arguing it violates the students' First Amendment rights.

The regulation prohibits any advertisements that mention alcohol in "college student publications" unless they are ''in reference to a dining establishment.'' It defines ''college student publication'' as one that is edited and published primarily by students, is sanctioned by the college or university and ''which is distributed or intended to be distributed primarily to persons under 21 years of age.''

The regulation also limits such references to the terms '''A.B.C on-premises,' 'beer,' 'wine,' 'mixed beverages,' 'cocktails,' or any combination of these words,'' and specifically prohibits the phrase ''Happy Hour''.

Mike Slaven, editor in chief of The Cavalier Daily, said the regulation has forced them to turn down some advertisers, which he said deprives the paper of a ''significant source of revenue.''

''Our paper subsists wholly on advertising, so when a segment of the community can't advertise with us, it hurts our bottom line,'' Slaven said.

While Slaven said the bottom line is clearly a factor in pursuing a lawsuit, he said he's mostly concerned with the regulation's implications on students' First Amendment rights.

''The first and foremost reason we're in the case is because we believe in freedom of press and it's being unfairly violated in this instance,'' Slaven said.

Rebecca Glenberg, lead attorney for the ACLU of Virginia, said she received a letter from the Collegiate Times in the fall expressing concern about the regulation. The ACLU then sent a letter to the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in September requesting that it stop enforcing the regulation. The Virginia ABC did not respond, prompting the lawsuit.

Glenberg said the regulation violates the First Amendment on multiple levels.

''[The regulation] imposes financial burdens on a particular segment of the press,'' Glenberg said. ''It also interferes with freedom of speech because it prevents the truthful advertising of a lawful product.''

Slaven and Glenberg each expressed reserved optimism due to a 2004 decision in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that a similar law in Pennsylvania violated the First Amendment.

''Of course it's always impossible to predict these things,'' Glenberg said.

''But I feel we have a strong case, and that the 3rd Circuit case is enormously helpful and should be very persuasive precedent to courts.''

The three-judge panel's opinion in The Pitt News v. Pappert, written by now-Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito, said, ''Imposing a financial burden of the speaker based on the content of the speaker's expression is a content-based restriction of expression and must be analyzed as such.''

The Pennsylvania law was designed to curb the amount of alcohol advertising directed to students under age 21. But of the university's more than 25,000 students, at least two-thirds were old enough to drink, according to the opinion.

The Virginia lawsuit names as defendants the commissioners and chief operating officer of the Virginia ABC, as well as the director of the Law Enforcement Bureau of the commission.

Beth Stone, a spokeswoman for the Virginia ABC, said as of 10 a.m. today, they had not yet been served with the lawsuit. Once the Virginia ABC receives the lawsuit, Glenberg said it will have 20 days to respond.

Collegiate Times, news, The Cavalier Daily, University of Virginia, Virginia, Virginia Tech