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ACLU asks Supreme Court to review Va. ban on alcohol ads

Jenna Johnson

The ACLU of Virginia has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on whether college newspapers should be allowed to publish ads promoting drink specials and happy hour deals.

The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board prohibits student publications from publishing ads that promote beer, wine or mixed drinks -- unless they are part of a larger ad promoting a restaurant. Even then, the ad cannot list alcohol brands or prices.

That means no happy hour ads, no Thirsty Thursday listings, no liquor store promos -- and less revenue for college newspapers. The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia and the Collegiate Times at Virginia Tech (the two newspapers challenging the ban with the help of the ACLU) estimate that the ban could cost them each about $30,000 a year.

In 2008, a U.S. District Court struck down the ban. But in April, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the ban, citing a link between restricted advertising and reduced binge drinking.

The ACLU doesn't believe that link exists -- and that the ban is a violation of the constitutional rights of the student publications. On Monday, it filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to decide. (You can read a PDF of the filings, here.)

"College students are bombarded with alcohol ads everyday -- on television, on the radio, on the Internet, on t-shirts, on baseball caps, and in magazines," said Rebecca K. Glenberg of the ACLU in a statement. "There is no reason to believe that banning the small fraction of these ads that appear in college newspapers has any impact on student behavior."

The topic isn't a new one for Justice Samuel A. Alito, who reviewed a similar case as a judge in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004.

In 1999, the ACLU joined the University of Pittsburgh student paper, Pitt News, to challenge Act 199, a Pennsylvania criminal law that prohibited college newspapers from publishing any advertisements that mentioned alcohol, the Student Press Law Center reported at the time. Advertisers who violated the law faced fines and possible jail time.

In a landmark decision five years later, the federal appeals court ruled that the law was a violation of the First Amendment. Alito authored the decision.

Interested in reading more on the topic? The First Amendment Center has an analysis of Alito's free speech record. And the Student Press Law Center has a lengthy recap of the 2004 decision in Pennsylvania.

Campus Overload is a daily must-read for all college students. Make sure to bookmark http://washingtonpost.com/campus-overload. You can also follow me on Twitter and fan Campus Overload on Facebook.

By Jenna Johnson  |  August 23, 2010; 5:44 PM ET
Categories:  Campus Media  | Tags: University of Pittsburgh, University of Virginia, Virgina Tech  
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