Alcohol Ads in College Newspapers

The prevailing issue in any decision on whether alcohol-related ads should be allowed in college newspapers can't be underage drinking or alcohol abuse on campuses, although both are real problems. It has to be about a more weighty matter: free speech.

The lawsuit by student newspapers at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech is an appropriate step to rid themselves of the censorship imposed by the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board. The agency bans advertising of specific alcohol products in student newspapers, except in reference to a dining establishment. That policy is part of the ABC Board's extensive body of regulations on alcohol advertising, but it isn't required by state law. Since the ABC Board refused one of the paper's attempts to secure a change, and the General Assembly declined to resolve the issue through legislation, it's up to the courts, in this case the 4th U.S. District Court.

When it comes to advertising, some limits on speech and press make sense. Take, for example, bans on making false claims in ads and on pitching cigarettes to children. In these cases, a compelling case can be made to limit what advertisers can say and where they can say it. But the ban on advertising in college publications fails the test such restrictions must meet: There's no evidence that it will make a dent in underage or abusive drinking.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito spoke to the importance of that standard when, while sitting on another U.S. District Court, he wrote the decision in a similar case. A University of Pittsburgh newspaper won its challenge to a Pennsylvania law banning advertisers from paying for advertising for alcoholic beverages in publications tied to educational institutions.

Alito wrote that "the First Amendment precluded enforcement of the (state) law in question" and explained that the law is unconstitutional because it represents an "impermissible restriction on commercial speech" and "targets a narrow segment of the media" in the absence of countervailing benefits. Indeed, "The suggestion that the elimination of alcoholic beverage ads from The Pitt News and other publications connected with the University will slacken the demand for alcohol by Pitt students is counterintuitive and unsupported by any evidence that the Commonwealth has called to our attention. ... In contending that underage and abusive drinking will fall if alcoholic beverage ads are eliminated from just those media affiliated with educational institutions, the Commonwealth relies on nothing more than 'speculation' and 'conjecture.' "

There are other problems with the ABC Board's rule. It ignores the fact that on many campuses a large number of the paper's readers are of legal drinking age: upperclassmen, graduate students, faculty and staff.

But the bottom line is this: The ABC Board's rule is an egregious intrusion on a fundamental liberty. The student newspapers are correct to fight it.

As for the campaign to fix campus climates steeped in alcohol, it must be fought on other fronts. The job lies, first and foremost, with parents, to be done before children leave for college. And college administrations have big jobs, in both alcohol education and enforcement. But real change must come from students themselves, by way of a shift from a peer culture that validates excess. College publications can help, by making - freely - responsible choices in the coverage and opinions they offer.


  • Originally published as “Restricting ads in college newspapers restricts basic liberties, ” an editorial in the Daily Press (Hampton Roads, Virginia), on June 25, 2006. Posted by permission of the editor.

Filed Under: Alcohol Advertising