• Court Cans Ban on Campus Alcohol Ads
  • August 27, 2004
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • A Pennsylvania law banning paid ads for alcohol in college newspapers is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled on July 29, 2004.

    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said that the 1996 law, aimed at fighting underage drinking, placed an unfair financial burden on student-run publications and hindered their right to free speech while doing little to achieve its purpose.

    The law was challenged by The Pitt News, a student-run paper at the University of Pittsburgh. In a 17-page opinion, Judge Samuel Alito said the state faces a heavy burden whenever it tries to restrict speech, but had offered only "speculation" and "conjecture" to support its contention that the ad ban would reduce the demand for alcohol by underage university students.

    "Even if Pitt students do not see alcoholic beverage ads in The Pitt News, they will still be exposed to a torrent of beer ads on television and the radio, and they will still see alcoholic beverage ads in other publications, including the other free weekly Pittsburgh papers that are displayed on campus together with The Pitt News," he wrote.

    The law's drafters had tried to avoid a free speech challenge through a technicality: instead of barring student publications from promoting alcohol, the state made it illegal for them to be paid for doing so. Alito rejected that strategy, writing, "If government were free to suppress disfavored speech by preventing potential speakers from being paid, there would not be much left of the First Amendment."

    The ruling could be a financial boon for other college newspapers, many of which forgo school funding so they may keep their editorial independence and rely on ad revenue to survive.

    Significance: The ruling is a welcome sign that at least some courts still defend the First Amendment against assaults by overzealous lawmakers.