Federal Court Rules Alcohol Ads A-OK in Virginia Tech, UVA Student Newspapers

In a ruling released today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has confirmed a restriction on alcohol advertising in a pair of student newspapers at Virginia universities is a First Amendment violation.

The decision is most likely the end of a roughly eight-year legal fight between counsel representing The Collegiate Times at Virginia Tech and The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia and the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.


The ABC Board oversees a statewide law that “prohibits college student newspapers from printing alcohol advertisements,” ostensibly to help “combat underage and abusive college drinking.” The CT and CD have long countered the law unfairly targets only a small section of media, infringes on the papers’ free speech rights, is ineffective in actually achieving its objective of lessening underage drinking and doesn’t account for the fact that a majority of readers for both pubs are 21 years old or older.

Today, the Fourth Circuit agreed with those counter-claims, granting the papers a hard-fought victory. It is not a statewide victory, however. The ruling as rendered apparently does not automatically apply to all student newspapers in Virginia.

In a message to Collegiate Times alumni also shared on a popular college media advisers’ list-serv, Kelly Wolff, the general manager of the company overseeing the CT, writes:

“I’m pleased to share with you that today marks a First Amendment victory in Virginia for the Collegiate Times and the Cavalier Daily in the alcohol advertising ban that has been in the courts since 2006.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the regulation is unconstitutionally overbroad as applied to advertising in the two student newspapers, whose student populations are more than 50 percent over the age of 21.

It is worth noting that this First Amendment ruling comes even as the speech was classified as commercial speech and subject to less stringent protections than non-commercial speech.

The decision applies the four-prong test, called the Central Hudson test, of whether the government’s restrictions are allowable under commercial speech’s ‘intermediate scrutiny’ level for a First Amendment case.

The Virginia ABC’s alcohol advertising ban fails the test that requires it to be narrowly tailored enough to achieve the government’s goals (preventing underage drinking as well as abusive binge-drinking) without infringing on the rights of groups for whom the advertised product is lawful (those over 21) and that the government can’t prevent the dissemination of truthful information on the grounds that it knows what is best for citizens.

In the Pitt News vs. Pappert case, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Pennsylvania law prohibiting college newspapers from printing alcohol advertising for similar reasons.”


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