Alcohol Ad Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

A Pennsylvania law banning paid advertising for alcoholic beverages in college newspapers is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The state had tried to create a loophole to avoid legal challenges based on the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Instead of directly prohibiting free speech, the state had tried to make it illegal for any college newspaper to accept money for publishing alcohol ads. That, of course, would have effectively prohibited alcohol ads. A former editor of the paper had said of the law that “it's undermining a constitutional amendment while hypocritically denying that it's doing it."

The federal court rejected the state’s ploy and asserted that “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 court noted that that the state faces a heavy burden of proof whenever it wants to restrict constitutionally guaranteed free speech rights. However, it had only offered “speculation” and “conjecture” to support its contention that the ad prohibition would reduce the demand for alcoholic beverages by underage students.

The reason the state didn’t provide evidence that restricting advertising would be effective is because the scientific research doesn’t support its speculation that a ban would be effective.

The court also held that the law, which was intended to prevent underage drinking, placed an unfair financial burden on student-run newspapers and failed to achieve its purpose.

The lawsuit was brought by The Pitt News, whose business manager said the advertising ban was well intentioned but misguided. She noted that 70% of the newspaper’s readers are over 21. This is consistent with national statistics, which indicate that 70.5% of all college students in the U.S. are of legal drinking age.

The legal action to defend free speech was supported by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Students Press Law Center, the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Reports Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) says the court’s decision is “irresponsible,“ “a step in the wrong direction,” and believes that Pennsylvania should appeal the ruling.

MADD insists that there is “solid evidence” that alcohol ads cause young people to drink. In reality, the absence of such research evidence is one reason the court could not uphold the law and the court clearly indicated this in its decision.

MADD also argues that the newspapers should look elsewhere for revenue. That’s beside the point and totally irrelevant. The fact that newspapers might be able to replace some of the lost revenue can’t be used deny them their constitutional right to advertise a legal product.

In addition to making erroneous assertions (it says that on college campuses “at least 50 percent are under the age of 21” -- the correct number is 29.5%) MADD makes other arguments against the court’s ruling that are so weak as to be obvious even to middle school students.


For more about the effects of alcohol ads, visit: Alcohol Advertising.

For more about MADD and its antagonism to rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, visit Mothers Against Drunk Driving: A Crash Course on MADD.


  • Caruso, David B. Court: State ban on alcohol ads in college newspapers is unconstitutional. Centre Daily Times, July 29, 2004; Alcohol ad ban ruled unconstitutional. KWY TV, CBS 3, 6:41 pm, July 29, 2004; Strohm. J. Elizabeth. State Act 199 upheld, The Pitt News, February 19, 2003; The Pitt News v. Attorney General of Pennsylvania (No. 03-1725), July 29, 2004; Brown, Jim. Court ruling on campus alcohol ads a step backwards, says MADD. Agape Press, August 9, 2004.

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