Appeals court hears challenge to Pa. ban on alcohol ads in student newspapers

TheUniversity of Pittsburgh student newspaper on Jan. 23 continued its legalchallenge of a state law that prohibits businesses from placing alcoholadvertisements in student publications.

A three-judge panel of the U.S.Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit heard oral arguments in the caseinvolving The Pitt News‘ four-year-long effort to overturn PennsylvaniaAct 199. The newspaper is appealing a lower court’s ruling that upheld the law.That court found that the law does not violate a student newspaper’s rightsbecause the law is directed at advertisers, not studentpublications.

The Pitt News claims enforcement of the act isunconstitutional because it limits the newspaper’s right to determine thecontent of the paper.

Previous editors of The Pitt News have alsosaid the paper lost as much as $20,000 in yearly ad revenue because of thelaw. 

Vic Walczak, attorney for The Pitt News , said he was”cautiously optimistic” after the hearing.

“Two of the judges seemedtroubled by the law,” Walczak said. “It was pretty clear from their questionsthat they were having trouble comprehending how the state could justify thislaw.”

The Student Press Law Center and other media groups filed afriend-of-the-court brief in support of The Pitt News in thecase.

Walczak, who is also the director of the greater Pittsburgh chapterof the American Civil Liberties Union, said he expects a ruling in three to sixmonths.

SPLC View: If The Pitt News lawyer’s “cautious optimism”is accurate prediction of how the court will rule in this case, it is abouttime. This legally insupportable law should have been rejected years ago.Alcohol is a legal product for the vast majority of college students and theSupreme Court has said that truthful, non-misleading ads about legal products orservices are constitutionally protected. State lawmakers attempted to do anend-run around the Constitution by prohibiting bars, liquor stores and otherbusinesses from placing alcohol ads instead of prohibit college studentnewspapers from publishing them. And the earlier court rulings in this case saidsuch a restriction did not conflict with the First Amendment. The implicationsof the conclusion that a state can regulate any kind of advertising simply bygoing after the advertiser instead of the publication where the ad would appearraised grave concerns among media organizations throughout thenation.