Supreme Court declines to intervene in college free-press case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to review a ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that allows restrictions on alcohol-related advertising in college publications in Virginia. However, arguments against the restrictions will continue in the lower courts.

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court decided not to hear this important First Amendment case,” said ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg. “The government never presented any evidence that the bans on alcohol advertising reduce underage drinking, so college newspapers should have the same right as other newspapers to obtain revenues from alcohol ads.”

The Supreme Court’s refusal to take the case allows to stand a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision holding that the restrictions are consistent with other kinds of limitations placed on commercial speech, but it leaves two additional arguments to be made. First, the restrictions as they are applied to the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech newspapers are unconstitutional because a majority of the readership at these two schools are of legal drinking age. Second, the restrictions discriminate against college newspapers, putting them at a disadvantage in the competition with other newspapers for ad revenues.

In 2008, a U.S. District Court in Virginia struck down the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board’s restrictions. The court found no evidence that the advertising ban had any effect on underage drinking and that there were other legitimate ways the state could reduce student drinking – including increased taxation on alcohol and counter-advertising – without infringing on freedom of the press.

But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that there was a “common sense” link between alcohol advertising bans in college papers and a decrease in demand for alcohol by college students, even if there was no evidence to support such an assumption.

The ACLU of Virginia represents Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech, the owner of Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times, and the University of Virginia’s The Cavalier Daily. The case is Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech v. Swecker. Attorneys for the two newspapers are Rebecca Glenberg and ACLU cooperating attorney Frank Feibelman of Richmond.

Edited by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at freepress2@ntelos.net.

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