RICHMOND, Va. — Student newspapers at two Virginia universities filed a lawsuit on June 8 challenging state regulations that prohibit them from running ads for alcoholic beverages.
Virginia Tech's Collegiate Times and The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia claim the ban is unconstitutional. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Richmond against the State Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which is representing the newspapers, said there was no evidence that the ad restriction achieves the goal of discouraging underage drinking.
"The state needs to show a strong link between alcohol ads in college newspapers and illegal drinking in order to justify this kind of censorship," state ACLU executive director Kent Willis said in a written statement. "Freedom of the press is too important in our society to be restricted on a hunch."
Tucker Martin, spokesman for Attorney General Bob McDonnell, said the state's lawyers had not yet reviewed the lawsuit. "However, the policy of prohibiting the advertising of alcohol to underage students who cannot drink appears to be sound," he said.
Christopher R. Konschak, Virginia executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, had a similar reaction.
"Binge drinking on college campuses is a concern of ours," he said. "Anything that promotes alcohol to underage persons is certainly a problem."
The student newspapers say, however, that they have a substantial number of readers who are 21 and older. They also say the ban puts them at a disadvantage in competing for advertising revenue.
"The same businesses that are completely prohibited from placing advertisements for alcoholic beverages in The Cavalier Daily are able to advertise in competing non-student newspapers such as C-Ville Weekly, which, like The Cavalier Daily, is a free weekly paper widely available to students under the age of twenty-one," the lawsuit says.
The ACLU noted that the University of Pittsburgh's student newspaper, Pitt News, successfully challenged similar restrictions in 2004. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ban placed an unfair financial burden on student-run publications and hindered their right to free speech while doing little to achieve its goal.
That opinion was written by Samuel Alito, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice.