The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has turned aside a First Amendment challenge to a state law restricting advertisements for alcoholic beverages in college student publications. Educ. Media Co. v. Swecker, No. 08-1798 (4th Cir., corrected decision filed April 19, 2010).

The restrictions at issue did not allow advertisements for alcohol in any college publication distributed primarily to students younger than 21, but did allow dining establishment advertisements in those publications to refer to alcohol. The studentrun newspapers challenging the restrictions claimed that they were losing tens of thousands of dollars in ad revenues annually because of the restrictions, which they contend do not advance the government’s interest in combating underage drinking.

The court found sufficient evidence in the record to link decreasing demand for alcohol by college students with the advertising restrictions, citing in particular the inimitable role that student publications play on campus and “the fact that alcohol vendors want to advertise in college student publications.” A dissenting judge disputed that finding, calling the record evidence of a link “speculative, at best.” According to the dissent, “The regulation not only impermissibly infringes upon the constitutional rights of adults (with the result of limiting the adult readership to receiving only speech that the Commonwealth deems appropriate for persons under the age of twenty-one), it also infringes upon the rights of those readers who are not yet twenty-one, who nonetheless have a protected interest in receiving truthful, non-misleading information about a lawful product that they will soon have the legal right to consume. And of course the advertisers have the right to communicate such information.”

The dissent also cited students’ exposure to alcohol advertising in other media, such as non-student newspapers, radio and television, to explain why the restrictions will not have their intended effect. The appeals court reversed the district court’s order granting the newspapers’ motion for summary judgment and vacated its permanent injunction. The case was remanded for proceedings consistent with its opinion.