Alcohol ad ban affecting Pennsylvania student press is constitutional, federal court rules

A federal district court ruled Feb. 13 that an 8-year-old state law prohibiting alcohol-related advertisements in school publications does not violate the rights of a college student newspaper.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled against The Pitt News, a student newspaper at the University of Pittsburgh, which claimed enforcement of the state’s Act 199 is unconstitutional. The act, passed in 1996 as an amendment to the Pennsylvania liquor code, bans businesses from advertising alcoholic beverages in newspapers and other materials “published by, for or in behalf of any educational institution.” The newspaper argued that the loss of revenue from businesses that pulled their alcohol ads decreased the page-length of The Pitt News, effectively limiting its news coverage.

In granting summary judgment to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the court admitted that student newspapers have a First Amendment right to determine their content, but ruled that The Pitt News has not shown that Act 199 violates these rights. “Simply put, the enforcement of Act 199 has no effect on The Pitt News‘ freedom of expression,” the court stated.

The court stressed the law is directed at advertisers and that student publications are not punished for printing alcohol-related ads. “The commonwealth’s enforcement of Act 199 against its liquor licensees does not violate any First Amendment rights of The Pitt News,” the court stated. “The Pitt News remains free to publish alcohol-related information.”

The Pitt News and the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit against the attorney general, the Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in 1999 after a local restaurant was fined for placing alcohol-related ads in the newspaper. Following that enforcement of the law, Pitt News staff members said most local restaurants decided to comply, cutting the paper’s annual advertising revenue by $17,000.

Vic Walczack, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU and Pitt News attorney, said the ban inherently limits expression by both prohibiting certain ads and decreasing overall ad income, which in turn limits the quality of the paper’s coverage.

“The state has selectively burdened school newspapers by saying certain content is illegal. I think that’s a pretty standard definition for censorship,” Walczack said.

Walczack said an appeal of the court’s decision is likely.

SPLC View: From the beginning this case has been troubling. This latest ruling is no different. All media that depend on advertising revenue — student and commercial — ought to be concerned by what is essentially an end-around the First Amendment by Pennsylvania lawmakers’. Rather than prohibiting publications from publishing accurate information about a lawful activity — something that the court notes would clearly violate the First Amendment — lawmakers have passed (and this court approved) a ban that simply prohibits advertisers from submitting such ads to a specific group of newspapers in the first place. And, since the only “harm” that the newspapers can show is economic harm (which this court said isn’t enough), college newspapers have been effectively prevented from contesting the law. This sets an extremely dangerous precedent. While lawmakers might not go beyond attacking alcohol ads in student media there is nothing in the ruling that says they have to stop there – or that they have to limit their attempts to ads that are placed in student media. It is a dangerous slippery slope and one that we hope is corrected on appeal.