VIRGINIA — A federal judge on Monday struck down astate ban on alcohol advertisements in student media, ruling the ban violatedthe First Amendment rights of student publications.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed a lawsuit in June 2006on behalf of two student papers: Virginia Tech University’s CollegiateTimes and the University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily. In theircomplaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in Richmond, the papers estimatedthe ban cost each of them $30,000 a year in lost ad revenue.
“This is a long time coming, but I am very pleased to see it through,” saidElizabeth Mills, who in January took over as the Cavalier Daily‘s editorin chief.
U.S. Magistrate Judge M. Hannah Lauck struck down two provisions of theVirginia Administrative Code. One regulation applied to alcohol ads in all printand electronic media, limiting advertisers to specific words and phrases todescribe their drinks and establishments. For example, it prohibits terms suchas “happy hour.” The other provision applied specifically to studentpublications, banning them from running any alcohol ads except for limitedreferences in ads for restaurants.
Neither regulation was sufficiently effective or narrowly tailored enoughto justify infringing on the free speech of the papers and advertisers, Lauckruled.
Even assuming the government has a substantial interest in promotingtemperance, Lauck wrote, the more general regulation failed the court’s analysisbecause the state showed “little evidence about this regulation at all, muchless evidence to explain why [allowed] generic phrases such as ‘Mixed Drinks,”Exotic Drinks,’ or even ‘Polynesian Drinks’ are more temperate than drink- orbrand-specific phrases.”
The state does have a substantial interest in curbing underage drinking,Lauck wrote. But both sides agreed the majority of the college papers’ readersare of legal drinking age. And banning alcohol ads in student media –while allowing them in other publications widely available on campus –does not materially advance the government’s goal and thus is not a justifiedinfringement on the papers’ First Amendment rights, Lauck ruled.
“Even presuming the Court could evaluate a 1970’s regulation based solelyon its performance in the years after 2000, not a single witness testifies as tohow this regulation, which has been in effect for decades, has directly advancedthe admittedly substantial governmental interest of preventing underageconsumption of alcohol or abusive drinking,” Lauck wrote.
A panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 struck down asimilar law in Pennsylvania, a ruling Lauck cited in her decision.
Although Lauck ruled that “it appears an injunction should issue”permanently barring enforcement of the regulations, she allowed both sides fivedays to ask for a hearing on whether to grant the injunction.
Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, toldthe Associated Press the state was “disappointed” with the ruling and wouldconsider its options.