State’s college newspapers rankled by liquor-ad restrictions

Monday, February 16, 1998

PITTSBURGH (AP) – A bar advertisement in a Pennsylvania college newspaper may entice readers to the dance floor, wet T-shirt contests or a blue-plate special, but it may not glorify two-for-one drafts.

Editors of college newspapers across the state bristle at a year-old revision to the state’s liquor law, blocking advertising of beer or liquor brands and prices in school publications.

Bar owners who violate the law could be fined or lose their liquor licenses.

“It’s a bad law, but we don’t want to break it,” said Anthony Breznican, editor-in-chief of The Pitt News at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Legislature approved the new law, which became effective last February but was enforced only this fall.

Editors say loss of advertising revenue has been minimal since bars began revising or reducing ads last fall at the urging of the Pennsylvania State Police’s office of Liquor Control Enforcement.

Their concern is whether the law violates newspapers’ and advertisers’ rights to free speech.

LCE officers didn’t tell newspapers they couldn’t publish certain ads. Instead, they told bar owners that they risk fines and liquor-license suspension if they ignore the law.

Last month, Megan Donley, editor in chief of The Daily Collegian at Penn State University in State College, started including information about happy hours and drink specials in a news column, “Over 21 Scene.”

Donley asked all State College establishments with liquor licenses to fax or mail upcoming specials they wanted in the column. The paper’s editorial staff could visit bars to gather such information as well. The column wasn’t an ad, so contributors paid nothing to be included.

LCE officers told State College bar owners they couldn’t provide that information, either.

“LCE officers visited bars to warn us and say that if we volunteer that information, knowing it would be used for reprint, we would be in violation,” said Mike Desmond, who owns two bars in Hotel State College next to Penn State.

“We accept the rules and will abide by them,” Desmond said. “We can’t afford not to.”

Michael Fives, a Pittsburgh attorney who represents many bars and restaurants, said the LCE approach was typical.

“There’s a serious First Amendment problem in telling a newspaper what it can publish,” Fives said. “Their control is with the bar owners.”

Fives said none of his Pittsburgh-area clients have complained to him about the law. A test of its constitutional strength would come if a bar owner were cited or fined and decided to fight, he said.

Bob George, supervisor with the Pittsburgh LCE office, said the office will investigate violations if it receives a complaint about an ad in an educational institution’s publication.

John Fiechtel, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspapers Publishers Association, said the PNPA has drafted proposed revisions to the law that would satisfy the newspapers’ concerns. The group is searching for a lawmaker to sponsor it.

Without changing the law, newspapers can either accept it or invest time and money in a court battle.

“We don’t have endless resources,” Breznican said. “It’s a dangerous law and dangerous territory for the state to be walking on.”