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

PENNSYLVANIA — A student newspaper asked the U.S. Supreme Courtto hear its case in November after a federal appellate court upheld a statelaw banning the advertising of alcohol in college publications.

The Pitt News petitioned the Supreme Court after the U.S. Courtof Appeals for the Third Circuit failed to grant the newspaper’s requestto hear the case again before the full court. In June, a three-judge panelof the Third Circuit refused to issue a preliminary injunction blockingenforcement of Act 199, a state law prohibiting businesses from advertisingalcoholic beverages in any publication published or produced “by, for oron behalf of any educational institution.”

The panel ruled that the ban did not violate the First Amendment rightsof the publication because it is aimed at businesses and advertisers, notnewspapers. But The Pitt News claims that although it cannot beprosecuted under Act 199, the loss of advertising revenue from enforcementof 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, accordingto court documents.

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

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

Vic Walczak, the executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh AmericanCivil 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 courtruled as it did,” Walczak said. “First Amendment experts around the countryhave reviewed the decision and are equally confounded with [it].”

Act 199, signed by Gov. Tom Ridge in 1996, was designed to address problemsof underage drinking and binge drinking on Pennsylvaniaís collegecampuses. Violation of the act is a misdemeanor and is investigated andenforced by the state’s Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement.

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