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Court strikes down law banning alcohol ads in college papers

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    News Media Update         THIRD CIRCUIT         Prior Restraints    

Court strikes down law banning alcohol ads in college papers

  • A Pennsylvania law forbidding ads for alcoholic beverages in student newspapers was declared unconstitutional.

July 30, 2004 — College newspapers must be allowed to run alcohol advertisements, an appellate court in Philadelphia held yesterday, overturning a Pennsylvania law banning the practice.

Pennsylvania’s law prohibiting advertising of alcoholic beverages in newspapers affiliated with educational institutions was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.). The three-judge panel held that the law unconstitutionally restricts the content of commercial speech and “imposes a financial burden on a particular segment of the media.”

“If government were free to suppress disfavored speech by preventing potential speakers from being paid, there would not be much left of the First Amendment,” the court held.

The court said the act’s structure makes it “presumptively unconstitutional” because it singles out a relatively small group of speakers — basically college newspapers — and the prohibition was not shown to be necessary to achieve the government’s goal of prohibiting underage drinking.

The ruling goes well beyond college newspapers, according to attorney Gayle Sproul, who represented the parties who filed a friend-of the-court brief in the case.

“It affects any media entity. Any time a law burdens a particular segment, it will be presumptively unconstitutional and only overcome by showing it meets a compelling state interest,” she said.

The Pitt News , the student newspaper at the University of Pittsburgh, filed suit in April 1999 against Pennsylvania officials responsible for enforcing the act. The newspaper alleged that the law violated its rights to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and equal protection of the laws.

In July 1999, the federal district court in Pittsburgh ruled against the News , holding that it could not assert First Amendment rights on behalf of its readers and advertisers. The court also held that the paper had not suffered any injury because it could still publish anything it wanted so long as it was not being paid to publish it.

The appellate court reversed the district court, remanding the case for entry of a permanent injunction against enforcement of the Pennsylvania law.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Student Press Law Center and the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association filed the amicus brief in support of the News . J. Attorneys defending the Pennsylvania officials could not be reached for comment.

(Pitt News v. Pappert, Media Counsel: Witold J. Walczak, American Civil Liberties Union, Pittsburgh) CZ

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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