An ad hominem ban

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August 31, 2010

1:10 AM

The University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily and Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union, have challenged a state-wide ban on alcohol advertising in student publications, and may even bring the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Protection of free speech, especially free speech among student publications, is a cause for which we are obviously in staunch support. It is a right intrinsic to what we do as a publication. We commend the ACLU for championing the case, and we urge the Supreme Court both to review the case, and to overturn this clearly unconstitutional ban. This is a cause that we feel a duty to support, as should all student publications or any student believing in free speech.

The news of this case provided a difficult situation to our Editorial Board. We often tread lightly on issues about which we might be thought to be inherently self-interested, but the law in question comprises such a consummate challenge to free speech that we felt it necessary to raise our concerns. It is with that consideration in mind that we lend our full support to the plaintiffs of that lawsuit.

Our primary concern is that it holds student publications to a different standard than that of other publications. It establishes college papers as legally differentiated from any other media outlet — that somehow alcohol-related advertisements in this context are inherently more damaging than in another.
We just do not find this to be the case. We are, any of us, exposed to alcohol advertising in a wide variety of media, of which college papers are only a very limited part. Instead, it is an infringement on both the rights of the publication to bring in revenue and determine content, and on the advertised business, which has a constitutionally protected right to free speech.

The logic for such an infringement of free-speech rights is only acceptable under very specific circumstances. Defined by the Central Hudson test, the government can restrict commercial speech only if it directly and materially advances the asserted government interest, given that the regulation is not more extensive than necessary to serve that interest.

This case clearly falls outside those bounds for several reasons. The 4th U.S. Court of Appeals Circuit decided that there was a “common sense” link between alcohol advertisements in campus publications and misuse of alcohol among students.

Unlike in the case of cigarettes, the government’s specific interest isn’t in reducing alcohol use, The government is instead attempting to reduce a specific type of alcohol use (or rather, misuse). But the assumption that alcohol advertisements somehow inherently encourage their viewers to drink in an irresponsible and dangerous manner, and must therefore be shielded from the potentially vulnerable college community, is both paternalistic and illogical.

If nothing else, this seems an oddly misplaced prohibition. While alcohol advertisements in student publications are a relatively small percentage of students’s overall ad consumption, they also don’t account for students’s largest exposures to alcohol on a daily basis. If the idea is to limit students’s exposure to alcohol in the campus environment, this is certainly a strange place to start.

Alcohol is going to continue to be an aspect of campus life, naturally. That much is unavoidable. What we can do, and in fact have a responsibility to do, is limit the factors that lead to irresponsible drinking habits among college students. But featuring alcohol advertisements in student publications is simply not one of those factors.

Our greater fear, in the case of this ban, is that the prohibition is substituted for meaningful discussion on college drinking habits. We ought to devote ourselves, as a state and as a community, to finding the most effective solution to student alcohol misuse. Banning alcohol ads is, if anything, a Band-Aid solution, and a blatantly unconstitutional one at that.

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