While student journalists across Pennsylvania quietly celebrate their legal victory against an eight-year ban on alcohol advertising in student publications, students in three states are still working under similar laws.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in July that the Pennsylvania law was an unconstitutional infringement on students’ First Amendment rights. After the ruling, there was speculation that students in other states would be encouraged to take on their own states’ laws. But so far, that has not happened.
New Hampshire, Utah and Virginia are the only states with laws or regulations that ban advertisers from running alcohol ads in student publications. Virginia allows “responsible drinking” messages with a company logo, so long as the logo is small and not the focus of the ad.
Although the laws do not punish the newspapers for accepting the ads, advertisers can face heavy fines for each infraction. In Pennsylvania, bar and club owners were so afraid of fines, they refused to run ads even without mention of alcohol, resulting in thousands of dollars in lost revenue for the newspapers.
The Pennsylvania law was designed to curb the amount of alcohol advertising directed to students under age 21. But just how much of a student population of a publication’s readership is underage is subject to debate.
Mark Seibring, assistant director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s College Alcohol Study, said he has not found a nationwide survey of how many college students are under the age of 21. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, he estimated that 44 percent of students at four-year colleges were between the ages of 15 and 20.
At the University of Utah, a survey conducted by the Daily Utah Chronicle found that only 18 percent of their readers are 18 to 20 while 35 percent are 25-35. The school has 28,500 students.
Business Manager Adam Ward said they are aware of the Pennsylvania decision, but have not approached the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. He believes that because most students are over 21, the Utah law should not apply to the Chronicle. The paper currently does not print alcohol ads.
Ward said the staff has not talked about challenging the current laws, in part because the older demographics of the school make it likely they could accept the ads if they wanted.
“We haven’t talked about [challenging the law],” he said. “But it’s not to say that we wouldn’t.” However, the Chronicle staff has voiced its opinion on the state’s laws before.
In 1996, a group of tavern owners sued the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission over a state law prohibiting alcohol advertising. The commission repealed a ban on beer advertising two months later. U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit eventually ruled that allowing beer advertising while prohibiting the advertising of wine and liquor was “irrational” and unconstitutional.
After the ruling, the commission held three months of open meetings to hear comments on how to amend the laws. Ward said several members of the paper attended the meeting. There, they said they believed student newspapers were included in the ban because the commission the majority of readers would be under 21, which is not the case.
The staff’s comments “didn’t seem to have any effect on changes in laws that they were doing,” Ward said.
In 2001, Utah adopted advertising laws in line with the Circuit Court’s decision and a similar U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said advertising bans interfered with “commercial free speech.”
Utah State University’s Utah Statesman staff is aware of the Pennsylvania case, but adviser Jay Wamsley said they are not planning to challenge it just yet.
Challenging it “has crossed our minds once in a while,” he said, “but it’s not a big drinking state, so we don’t think it would actually increase our advertising that much anyway, even if we did have it.”
At the University of Virginia, Josh Goodman, chief financial officer for the Cavalier Daily, believes his paper is exempt from the law because it is independent. Virginia law specifically lists student publications covered by the law as defined by three criteria: They are run by students, sanctioned by the school as a curricular or extra-curricular activity and distributed primarily to those under 21.
“I don’t think it would apply to us because we are independent,” Goodman said. “We don’t have any formal affiliation with the university.” He said the paper rents office space from the university.
Goodman said they print responsible drinking messages allowed under exceptions to the law, such as ads from local bars and clubs mentioning alcohol. Virginia allows advertising that refers to a particular restaurant, but they cannot refer to brands or prices.
Goodman said he never thought to challenge Virginia’s law.
“I don’t think it’s ever been an issue with us,” he said. “I don’t know if [the state] would try to stop us if we did” publish an ad.
So far, only New Hampshire’s Keene State College student newspaper, the Equinox, has said it will challenge their state law. Executive Editor Laura Robida estimated the paper loses more than $2,000 each week as a result of the law.
“Because of this law, many of the local bars and restaurants known for their drinks are hesitant to advertise with us,” Robida said in an e-mail. “The only bar that does run ads with us is extremely careful about the wording of their ads.”
Robida said the Equinox is a small publication, so the $2,000 is a “significant” amount. She said her staff decided to pursue the issue.
“We will begin to act upon this law,” she said.
With alcohol companies spending $1.9 billion on advertising, and an estimated $3.8 billion more in sponsorships and promotional items according to the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, it is no wonder some student publications want in.
At the University of Pittsburgh, where the Pitt News has been selling ads to bars and clubs since August, Business Manager Bethany Litzinger said their revenue from businesses that serve alcohol has increased by about 89 percent.
In their lawsuit, the Pitt News said they lost as much as $17,000 in revenue in just the first year of the ban. That lost revenue forced a reduction in the size of the paper and ultimately a reduction in content, which helped the court find the law unconstitutional.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that the loss of revenue resulted in an unfair burden on student media, restricting their First Amendment rights. The court noted that the Pitt News was unable to afford new computers and digital cameras, making it harder for them to compete with other local newspapers for readers. The court also said the paper might eventually have to charge a subscription fee, further decreasing readership.
The New Hampshire Business adviser Helene Jones said the paper has its own policy of not accepting alcohol ads and was unaware of the state’s law against the advertisements. The paper also refuses tobacco ads.
“I had no idea there was a legal statute on the books in the state,” said Jones, who has been the adviser for four years. “We don’t accept [alcohol ads] and perhaps that’s why.”
“Even if the state repealed the law, we’d probably still not accept them,” she said.”We can find other creative ways of meeting our advertising needs.”
View New Hampshire’s law.
View Virginia’s law.
View Utah’s law.