Federal court strikes down ban on alcohol ads in Va. campus papers

VIRGINIA -- A federal judge on Monday struck down a state ban on alcohol advertisements in student media, ruling the ban violated the First Amendment rights of student publications.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed a lawsuit in June 2006 on behalf of two student papers: Virginia Tech University's Collegiate Times and the University of Virginia's Cavalier Daily. In their complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in Richmond, the papers estimated the ban cost each of them $30,000 a year in lost ad revenue.

"This is a long time coming, but I am very pleased to see it through," said Elizabeth Mills, who in January took over as the Cavalier Daily's editor in chief.

U.S. Magistrate Judge M. Hannah Lauck struck down two provisions of the Virginia Administrative Code. One regulation applied to alcohol ads in all print and electronic media, limiting advertisers to specific words and phrases to describe their drinks and establishments. For example, it prohibits terms such as "happy hour." The other provision applied specifically to student publications, banning them from running any alcohol ads except for limited references in ads for restaurants.

Neither regulation was sufficiently effective or narrowly tailored enough to justify infringing on the free speech of the papers and advertisers, Lauck ruled.

Even assuming the government has a substantial interest in promoting temperance, Lauck wrote, the more general regulation failed the court's analysis because the state showed "little evidence about this regulation at all, much less evidence to explain why [allowed] generic phrases such as 'Mixed Drinks,' 'Exotic Drinks,' or even 'Polynesian Drinks' are more temperate than drink- or brand-specific phrases."

The state does have a substantial interest in curbing underage drinking, Lauck wrote. But both sides agreed the majority of the college papers' readers are of legal drinking age. And banning alcohol ads in student media -- while allowing them in other publications widely available on campus -- does not materially advance the government's goal and thus is not a justified infringement on the papers' First Amendment rights, Lauck ruled.

"Even presuming the Court could evaluate a 1970's regulation based solely on its performance in the years after 2000, not a single witness testifies as to how this regulation, which has been in effect for decades, has directly advanced the admittedly substantial governmental interest of preventing underage consumption of alcohol or abusive drinking," Lauck wrote.

A panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 struck down a similar law in Pennsylvania, a ruling Lauck cited in her decision.

Although Lauck ruled that "it appears an injunction should issue" permanently barring enforcement of the regulations, she allowed both sides five days to ask for a hearing on whether to grant the injunction.

Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, told the Associated Press the state was "disappointed" with the ruling and would consider its options.

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

More Information

Educational Media Co. at Virginia Tech v. Swecker, No. 06-396 (E.D. Va. Mar. 31, 2008).

  • Virginia student newspapers challenging state alcohol advertising ban News Flash, 6/5/2007