PENNSYLVANIA ‘Restaurants and bars hoping to draw college crowds by advertising drink specials in local student newspapers received a sobering reminder from a federal district court in February. The court upheld an 8-year-old state law that penalizes them for buying alcohol-related advertisements in school publications, ruling the law does not violate the rights of a college student newspaper.
The case has been brewing since 1997, when the state law, Act 199, was first enforced in the University of Pittsburgh area. The Pitt News, the university’s student newspaper, filed suit, claiming the enforcement of the act was unconstitutional. The newspaper argued that the loss of revenue from businesses that pulled their alcohol ads decreased its page-length, effectively limiting its news coverage.
Act 199 bans businesses from advertising alcoholic beverages in newspapers and other materials ‘published by, for or on behalf of any educational institution.’ Those that place ads are subject to fines and jail time.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, in granting summary judgment to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, said that the enforcement of Act 199 does not violate a student newspaper’s right to determine its content.
The court stressed that the law is directed at advertisers and that student publications are not punished for printing alcohol-related ads. But Pitt News Editor in Chief Dave Hartman said the loss of alcohol-related advertising has cut the paper’s annual advertising revenue by $17,000.
‘Our money comes strictly from advertising,’ Hartman said. ‘When we’re not able to compete on the same level as some of the news weeklies here, which can advertise alcohol, that’s injurious to our cause.’
Hartman said The Pitt News has started printing free, semi-regular lists of drink specials at local bars this semester as a service to students, 73 percent of whom are 21 or older.
Witold Walczak, Pitt News attorney, said an appeal to the court’s decision is likely.
‘The state has selectively burdened school newspapers by saying certain content is illegal,’ said Walczak, who is also the director of the greater Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ‘I think that’s a pretty standard definition for censorship.’
Pitt News v. Fisher, Civ. No. 99-529 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 14, 2003)
According to a 2000 study by the Harvard School of Public Health of more than 700 colleges and universities, roughly 51 percent of schools reported prohibiting advertisements for off-campus bars or clubs in campus newspapers or on bulletin boards.
Public schools were less likely to limit advertising, while schools in the Northeast and those with religious affiliations were more likely to do so.
Because of First Amendment protections for student journalists, no court has ever allowed a public school to enforce restrictions on alcohol advertising.
Some student publications, including the Spectrum at North Dakota State University, have instituted their own policies regarding the types of alcohol ads they will run. The Spectrum staff chose to limit advertising they felt encouraged binge drinking.