Wisconsin school district moves toward banning bar ads in yearbook

A Wisconsin school district is contemplating the unusual step of banning yearbook ads that — at least among American high schools — are themselves quite unusual.

Edgerton School District’s superintendent, responding to complaints from some community members, recently told Edgerton High School’s yearbook staff to purge its advertiser list of alcohol-based businesses, such as bars, grills and liquor stores, according to the Janesville Gazette. The school board plans to provide a list of “approved” advertisers to the yearbook this fall, and the indications are that at least some alcohol vendors won’t make the cut.

For nearly 50 years, The Crimson Tide Annual has published ads submitted by local businesses, including those that sell alcohol, to help cover its publication costs. The ads often include photos of high school students who work at the businesses along with a congratulatory message.

The student yearbook staff has not yet said whether they will challenge any move to make the yearbook “go dry.” Interestingly, though, Wisconsin law — unlike that in many other states — could actually make such a challenge more feasible.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects advertisements — but only where they concern a lawful activity and are not misleading. Because underage drinking is generally illegal, a ban on alcohol ads directed primarily at high school students would usually be tough to contest. (The jury is divided when it comes to bans on alcohol ads in college student media.) However, Wisconsin, widely known for its history of beer production (though many of the state’s largest breweries have relocated over the past several years), allows minors not only to accompany their parents in bars, but also to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages while there if the bar owner is agreeable.

While we don’t advocate a legal challenge, it does seem that there are better options. Rather than an outright ban on ads — and eliminating revenue in a tough economy — from local businesses that, as the superintendent acknowledges, are almost certainly more interested in supporting their community than encouraging illegal drinking, why not simply ask that the ads be tempered to reflect their younger audience. Indeed, with all the media that bombard young people today, it’s quite a stretch to believe that an ad purchased by a local bar (any more than the same ad purchased by a flower shop) that simply congratulates the Class of 2011 on its achievement encourages unlawful drinking.

EHS’s principal has said that a ban would cost the yearbook approximately $5,500 and, in the absence of an alternative revenue source, would increase the cost of each yearbook by about $15.