Battle brews over alcohol ads in college media

\nPENNSYLVANIA – A federal judge rejected a college newspaper’s\nchallenge to a state ban on alcohol advertising in school publications\nin July.

The Pitt News, a University of Pittsburgh student newspaper,\nargued that the state’s ban on advertising was unconstitutional\nbecause it violated its First Amendment free speech and free press\nrights.

“[The law] is absolutely ineffective and basically unconstitutional,”\nsaid Jason Gallinger, editor of The Pitt News. “It\ninfringes on our First Amendment rights in Pennsylvania.”

But U.S. District Judge William Standish ruled that the newspaper\nlacked standing to challenge the state liquor control board’s\nlaw because the ban prohibits businesses from advertising alcohol\nin school publications. The law does not forbid school publications\nfrom accepting alcohol advertising.

Under the law, businesses holding state alcohol licenses are\nnot allowed to run ads in publications that are “published\nby, for or in behalf of any educational institution,” such\nas yearbooks, newspapers and sports programs. The law also applies\nto college radio and television stations.

But only those who place the ads, such as liquor stores, restaurants\nand bars, are subject to punishment-fines of $100 to $500 or up\nto three months in jail for a first offense. Repeat violators\ncould lose their liquor licenses.

Vic Walczak, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh American\nCivil Liberties Union and the attorney handling the newspaper’s\ncase, argued that The Pitt News lost ad revenue because\nof the ban, which, in turn, forced the newspaper to curtail its\ncontent and delay capital improvements.

Gallinger said the newspaper lost $17,000, or 3 percent of\nits budget, in 1998 due to the ban on alcohol advertising.

“I’ve been here for a year and a half, and I’ve seen the\nnewspaper get smaller,” said Gallinger, who added that the\nloss in revenue has restricted the newspaper’s technology improvements,\nsuch as the purchase of a photo negative scanner.

Standish, however, said in his decision that the newspaper’s\neconomic losses did not directly curtail its content.

“The impact of the enforcement of … Act 199 has been,\nand will be, indirect and monetary with respect to The Pitt\nNews,” he said. “Such enforcement will not affect\nin any way the content of the material that The Pitt News chooses\nto publish.”

The Pitt News had asked the judge to issue a preliminary\ninjunction to prevent the liquor control board from enforcing\nthe advertising ban until a final decision in the case is made.\nIt could take several years before the case is decided, and the\nnewspaper stands to lose a lot of advertising revenue during the\nlitigation.

Walczak filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for\nthe Third Circuit on July 2.

“The judge made a mistake,” he said. “His opinion\nis legally indefensible.”

Walczak said the judge’s opinion is “internally contradictory”\nbecause the judge recognized that the economic loss suffered by\nthe newspaper due to the ban curtailed its content but said enforcement\nof the ban would not affect the newspaper’s content.

The state legislature passed the law in 1996 in an effort to\ncurb underage drinking, and it was first enforced in 1997.