Virginia Attempts to Address Underage Drinking by Impinging Upon Free Speech

Last week, a panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ban on the advertising of alcohol in college newspapers.  The case involved a challenge to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission’s expansive ban on the advertising of beer, wine and mixed drinks in student-run publications throughout the state of Virginia.

Beyond the obvious economic implications (the newspapers challenging the regulations estimated that the advertising ban would cost them approximately $30,000 per year), the ban directly infringes upon both the newspapers’ and alcohol vendors’ right to free speech.

Because the regulations are targeted towards speech involving economic activity, the court analyzed the ban under First Amendment doctrine pertaining to commercial speech and in doing so found that the ban was sufficiently narrowly tailored to the governmental interest in combating underage drinking.

The dissent, however, argued that the majority’s decision was based on the tenuous presumption that there exists a correlation between alcohol advertisements in student newspapers and underage drinking while, actually, the majority of those who would read the student newspapers were, in fact, of legal drinking age:  upperclass students, graduate students, faculty and staff.  The ban also does nothing about the advertisement of alcohol in non-student publications that are available on campus, raising doubt as to the validity of the rationale behind it.

In practice, while the ban’s effect on combating underage drinking is merely speculative and likely minimal at best, its effect on the viability of student-run publications will be undeniably detrimental.  And even with the ban in place, underage students will continue to find themselves bombarded with alcohol propaganda in myriad other forms.  Is it really appropriate – not to mention constitutional – for the state to be implementing such ineffective yet harmful regulations?

There certainly exist more effective means of addressing underage drinking while maintaining free speech rights – why not use some of the proceeds from alcohol ads to fund campus-wide awareness campaigns pertaining to alcohol abuse?  With a bit more creativity mixed in with some respect for the First Amendment, the Virginia Commission could probably do better.

A full text PDF of the case can be downloaded here.

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Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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