Alcohol ad ban for Pa. student press is not unconstitutional, federal court rules

PENNSYLVANIA — A federal district court ruled Feb.13 that an 8-year-old state law prohibiting alcohol-related advertisements inschool publications does not violate the rights of a college studentnewspaper.The U.S. District Court for the Western District ofPennsylvania ruled against The Pitt News, a student newspaper at theUniversity of Pittsburgh, which claimed enforcement of the state’s Act 199is unconstitutional. The act, passed in 1996 as an amendment to the Pennsylvanialiquor code, bans businesses from advertising alcoholic beverages in newspapersand other materials “published by, for or in behalf of any educationalinstitution.” The newspaper argued that the loss of revenue frombusinesses that pulled their alcohol ads decreased the page-length of ThePitt News, effectively limiting its news coverage.In grantingsummary judgment to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the court admitted thatstudent newspapers have a First Amendment right to determine their content, butruled that The Pitt News has not shown that Act 199 violates theserights. “Simply put, the enforcement of Act 199 has no effect on ThePitt News’ freedom of expression,” the court stated.Thecourt stressed the law is directed at advertisers and that student publicationsare not punished for printing alcohol-related ads. “Thecommonwealth’s enforcement of Act 199 against its liquor licensees doesnot violate any First Amendment rights of The Pitt News,” the courtstated. “The Pitt News remains free to publish alcohol-relatedinformation.”The Pitt News and the Pennsylvania AmericanCivil Liberties Union filed the suit against the attorney general, thePennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in 1999after a local restaurant was fined for placing alcohol-related ads in thenewspaper. Following that enforcement of the law, Pitt News staff memberssaid most local restaurants decided to comply, cutting the paper’s annualadvertising revenue by $17,000.“It’s a law that injurescollege newspapers financially, which makes them less competitive in the marketthat they’re in,” said Pitt News Editor in Chief DaveHartman. “Our money comes strictly from advertising. When we’re notable to compete on the same level as some of the news-weeklies here, which canadvertise alcohol, that’s injurious to our cause.”In itscross-motion, The Pitt News said Act 199 “intends to ban, and ineffect eliminates, constitutionally protected speech in a small, targeted groupof newspapers,” adding that it is not “narrowly tailored to advancea compelling state interest.” The court denied The Pitt News itssummary judgment request.Vic Walczack, legal director of thePennsylvania ACLU and Pitt News attorney, said the ban inherently limitsexpression by both prohibiting certain ads and decreasing overall ad income,which in turn limits the quality of the paper’scoverage.“The state has selectively burdened school newspapers bysaying certain content is illegal. I think that’s a pretty standarddefinition for censorship,” Walczack said. “Frankly, a bunch offolks in business suits in Harrisburg shouldn’t be making those editorialdecisions for independently run student newspapers or any othermedia.”Hartman said this week The Pitt News will beginprinting a free semi-regular list of drink specials as a service to students, 73percent of whom are 21 or older, and local bars.Walczack said an appealto the court’s decision is likely.

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