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Two major student newspapers in Virginia will be allowed to publish advertisements for alcohol brands and products after all, after a federal appeals court ruled that a state law banning the practice infringed on their First Amendment rights.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is the latest development in a seven-year quest by the papers and the American Civil Liberties Union to overturn the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board’s rule, which forbade student newspapers from publishing any ads for alcoholic beverages, unless they were for a restaurant.

The court zeroed in on the difference between the Commonwealth of Virginia’s stated aim – to combat underage and abusive drinking on college campuses – with the papers’ readership. The law singled out student papers specifically because they purportedly cater to an underage population, but the majority of readers of both papers that won the lawsuit – The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia and The Collegiate Times at Virginia Tech University – are over the age of 21.

“In a lot of ways, it was really a relic of bygone days, and it’s good to see that it’s been swept into history,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center (a plaintiff in the case), adding that the ban included certain words in reference to types of drinks, like “highball.”

“There’s just no shortage of alternative outlets, especially on the Internet, where students can find out what to drink and where to drink,” LoMonte said. “You couldn’t have a regulation that singles out only the college media and selectively bans only a product that’s legal for their readers to use.”

At a time when student papers are seeing their budgets shrink just as the professional ones are, these sorts of laws (at least two states -- Utah and New Hampshire -- still have them on the books) can have a significant effect on independent publications that rely solely on advertising as their primary revenue stream. That is the case at both the Cavalier Daily and the Collegiate Times (and in fact, the latter subsidizes other student media through its revenue).

When The Pitt News at the University of Pittsburgh sued to overturn a similar Pennsylvania law in 1999 (it finally won in 2004), its lawyers noted in court documents that the ban cost the publication about $17,000 in revenue the year before.

“If we can’t advertise for five years, that could well be $100,000 or more,” said Harry Klomen, news adviser at the student paper, whose operating budget has shrunk from $900,000 to about $800,000 in recent years. “Every penny we spend, we have to earn, and for a number of years, we had an advertising avenue closed off to us.”

Operating with that revenue blocked off would be even more damaging now, said David Swartzlander, president of the College Media Association.

“I mean, that’s huge,” said Swartzlander, who is also an assistant journalism professor and adviser to The Doane Owl at Doane College, in Nebraska. “They need every buck they can get.”

The Collegiate Times has turned away advertisers “many times” because of the ban, Kelly Wollf, general manager of Virginia Tech’s campus media umbrella organization Educational Media Company, said in an e-mail. “The ban certainly hurts the ability of the paper to support its news and educational missions.”

That includes the way students were able to work (and learn) at the publication, Cavalier Daily Editor-in-Chief Kaz Komolafe said -- even for editorial content like photo illustrations.

“It impacted how comfortable I felt about having those types of logos or promotions in our newspaper,” she said. “It was that kind of taboo or prohibition around the idea of prominent placement of alcohol.”

Students also were impeded in their ability to work effectively with advertisers, Komolafe said. Sometimes, it was unclear whether an offer would be permissible; for instance, an ad for a concert sponsor in part by a particular brand of beer, whose small logo might appear somewhere.

“If you’re on the phone with an advertiser, you don’t want to say, let me go check with my lawyer for three days,” she said. “And by then the event’s already happened.”

While the decision is good news for student papers in the Fourth Circuit that fit the profile of the Cavalier Daily and Collegiate Times, it doesn't necessarily promise relief for others.

“The reality today is that if you are at a two-year college that has a newspaper read by 18- and 19-year-olds, it’s entirely possible that the state still might try to come after you under the regulation,” LoMonte said. “The constitutionality of a regulation like that is always going to depend on whether the end justifies the means, and in this case, it just didn’t.”

Narrow or not, the decision is definitely a victory for student press, Swartzlander said.

“Whenever the First Amendment gets upheld,” he said, “to me, that’s pretty significant.”

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