Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech v. Insley

731 F.3d 291 (4th Cir. 2013)

In 2006, the student newspapers at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia filed suit against the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control board for its blanket ban on the advertising of alcoholic beverages in college newspapers. Under Virginia law, advertisements that mention alcohol are only allowed if they reference “a dining establishment.” The papers argued the ban caused them to lose revenue and said the ban unfairly targeted college newspapers by limiting the student editors’ right to print advertisements. The ABC board said the ban was justified to limit the sale of alcohol to minors and curb excessive college drinking.

In 2008, a federal magistrate ruled in favor of the student publications, saying that the regulations were not narrowly tailored enough so as to justify infringing on the papers and advertisers’ rights. On an appeal from the ABC board, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in 2010, allowing the ban to stand. The Supreme Court declined to hear the student editors’ appeal, sending the case back to the district court for a ruling on the constitutionality of the ban as it specifically applied to the two papers. This time, the federal magistrate ruled in favor of the ABC board, saying that speech can be curtailed if the government has a “substantial” interest in the restriction.

The papers again appealed to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the SPLC filed an amicus curiae brief. The SPLC brief asked that the ban be declared unconstitutional because it puts an undue burden on specific type of media and is thus a violation of the First Amendment. The brief also argued that the state cannot show that the ban achieves any particular narrow aim, since many readers of college papers are of legal drinking age.

In September 2013, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ban was unconstitutional and reversed the judgment of the district court. The court said the ban did not directly help Virginia curb underage drinking and and it prohibited “large numbers of adults who are 21 years of age or older from receiving truthful information about a product that they are legally allowed to consume.” 

Read the final opinion.