RICHMOND, Va. — A divided federal appeals court has restored Virginia's ban on alcohol advertising in college newspapers, concluding the restriction does not unduly limit free-speech rights.
In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded on April 9 that the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission ban is a minimally restrictive approach to combat problem drinking.
The ban "is narrowly tailored to serve the board's interest of establishing a comprehensive scheme attacking the problem of underage and dangerous drinking by college students," Judge Dennis W. Shedd wrote for the majority in Educational Media Company v. Swecker.
The ban was challenged by Virginia Tech's Collegiate Times and the University of Virginia's Cavalier Daily. In 2008, a U.S. magistrate ruled that the regulations violated the newspapers' free-speech rights and also said there was no proof that the ban deterred drinking by college students under age 21.
The lower court ruling invalidated the ban for all college newspapers in the state.
The state appealed to revive the regulations, which ban ads for beer, wine and mixed drinks in student-run publications unless they're in the context of an ad for a restaurant. The regulations also ban the phrase "happy hour" and references to specific mixed drinks.
The American Civil Liberties Union countered that most readers of the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech newspapers — graduate students, faculty and staff — are 21 or older. It also said the government cannot justify targeting student newspapers when other publications available on campus are free to run liquor ads.
In his dissent, Judge Norman K. Moon disagreed that the ban was a "sufficiently narrow" limit on speech and wrote: "The record reveals that the majority of the readership of these newspapers is of legal age to drink."
"I think that Judge Moon's dissent pretty much got it right," said Rebecca Glenberg, an ACLU attorney who represented the newspapers. "As Judge Moon pointed out, the connection between this ban on advertising and underage drinking and binge drinking was completely speculative."
Glenberg said she had not discussed with her clients whether to appeal the decision to the full 4th Circuit.
In an e-mail, the attorney general's office said: "We're pleased that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with our view."