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Banning liquor ads in college newspapers doesn’t work

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Gene Policinski
April 6, 2008

There are moments when a courtroom win for free expression in America might not entirely seem like such a good thing to some Americans, for some distinctly non-First Amendment reasons.


I confess to a bit of dueling emotions myself about a recent victory for college newspapers in Virginia. A federal magistrate judge in Richmond tossed out a longtime state ban on alcohol-related advertising in college newspapers, a statute that legislators said was aimed at reducing underage student drinking. In 2004, a similar state law in Pennsylvania was voided.


Judge M. Hannah Lauck held that the Virginia law violated the student publications’ constitutional right to free expression. The student publications argued that not being able to run such ads put them automatically at a competitive disadvantage against commercial papers that faced no such prohibition against advertising beer, wine or liquor—but also reached students.


Law and logic support Lauck’s ruling. Apart from its improperly restraining competition, a ban applying to college newspapers and Web sites hardly shielded students. After all, there is the daily barrage of beer commercials on television and other promotions for wine and liquor sales. And then there is the right of readers to receive information, too.


Both sides in the case agreed that more than half of the college newspaper audience is older than the legal drinking age of 21. And, Lauck noted, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Commission produced no evidence that the ban reduced alcohol abuse or cut down on underage consumption.


I am of the strong view that college newspapers are just that: newspapers with an audience of students, faculty, staff and even some parents and community residents. Judge Lauck set a good precedent for all of us in how to view college newspapers and online news sites: They’re entitled to the free-press rights enjoyed by all citizens to write and report freely, and to seek financial support to enable them to do so, without government interference or control.


Yet, after hearing of her ruling, I kept going back in my mind to an incident some years ago. One of my sons was considering which college he might attend, and he, my wife and I went to a campus in the Midwest for a typical pre-college visit.


As we walked across the grounds, escorted by a peppy and positive college representative, we neared a residence hall. At the very moment the college rep turned to face us, two students emerged from a side door of the dorm—each carrying large garbage sacks filled with beer cans and bottles.


“Clink, rattle and clunk” went the bags all the way to a trash bin, the students seemingly paying us no mind. To her credit, our university guide shouldered on. But the impression stuck. My son didn’t enroll there. And that one-time vision of the booze problem that college administrators face remains vivid even today.


Binge drinking and underage consumption are rampant on campuses, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The NIAAA reported in 2007 that, “1,700 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes.” And it reports thousands of alcohol-fueled assaults and injuries.


Such figures from the NIAAA and other sources are regular subjects for needed, honest and serious reporting by college journalists. Those same journalists also are free to decide on their own not to carry liquor ads, and to carry public-service presentations from groups warring and warning against alcohol dangers.


But a government ban that keeps liquor ads out of college newspapers is a wrong-headed and ineffective approach to fighting those statistics and the myriad problems they indicate.


America tried the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) in 1919 and in 1933 we got the 21st Amendment throwing out the failed policy.


I prefer a First Amendment approach: a free and open “marketplace of ideas”—and of advertising—that helps citizens make responsible and informed decisions about all kinds of matters, including whether, when and how much to drink.


Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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