Friday, September 27, 2013

Court Rejects Ban on Alcohol Advertising in College Papers

Until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit's recent decision limited its reach, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board's (ABC) regulations banned all college newspapers from running alcohol advertising. The ban is part of a comprehensive strategy aimed at reducing underage drinking.

Many colleges and universities take a similar "environmental" or "community-level" approach to combat high-risk drinking. These interventions often enlist retailers and advertisers as allies in prevention efforts. 

But in 2006 two college newspapers affected by the regulation, The University of Virginia's Cavalier Daily and Virginia Tech's Collegiate Daily, sued the ABC, claiming the ban violated their First Amendment free speech rights.

The newspapers pointed out that a majority of their readership were over 21 (59-60% of the Collegiate Times' and 64% of The Cavalier Daily's readers). Therefore, while Virginia had a government interest in preventing underage drinking, the papers' wide distribution to people over 21 meant that the scope of the regulation was too broad.

In its decision, the Court sided with the college newspapers, acknowledging the state's interest but rejecting the regulation's overbroad reach.

"While commercial speech is protected by the First Amendment, there is a 'commonsense distinction' between commercial speech and other varieties of speech...[therefore] a regulation of commercial speech will be upheld if (1) the regulated speech concerns lawful activity and is not misleading; (2) the regulation is supported by a substantial government interest; (3) the regulation directly advances that interest; and (4) the regulation is not more extensive than necessary to serve the government’s interest."

Under this analysis, the Court concluded, "the challenged regulation fails...because it prohibits 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...Accordingly, the challenged regulation is unconstitutionally overbroad."

The court also rejected the ABC's rejoinder that the regulation was justified by the state's more general interest in combatting abusive drinking, whether by underage or of-age drinkers. The Court cited a previous case that determined "states may not 'seek to remove a popular but disfavored product from the marketplace by prohibiting truthful, non-misleading advertisements.'"

The ruling, however, did not overturn the regulation itself. It only rejected the regulation as applied to these four-year college newspapers. As commentators have pointed out, where a paper's underage readership is the majority of its readership, the ban might still apply. A paper at two-year college, for instance, might still be subject to the regulation.

Critics of the ban have lauded the decision as a victory for free speech. Indeed, because school papers operate under tight budgets, the ban had a significant impact on the papers' finances and thus affected their primary mission of news reporting. According to estimates in The Cavalier Daily, lifting the prohibition would raise advertising revenue by 5 to 8%.

And while harm-reduction specialists may lament the loss of another valuable tool, the research is still divided on the effects of advertising on alcohol consumption. 

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