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Beware of the conspiracy of state government

By Nick Zeckets
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
June 21, 2000
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Last week, colleges suffered a blow to their rights - from the American Civil Liberties Union. The Pitt News, the University of Pittsburgh's student newspaper, lost a case in the Pennsylvania Federal Court of Appeals, as their right to profit from alcohol advertisements was taken away. Sadly, the ACLU lawyers in Pittsburgh did a horrible job, and now, colleges and their newspapers nationwide could face increasing levels of restriction.

Pennsylvania Act 199 indicates that paid ads for alcohol may not appear in college publications. However, if the Pitt News wanted to publish local drink specials as an interest column, that would be OK. The logic for the act is fuzzy, to say the least, and losing this case in court is even fuzzier.

U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard L. Nygaard's decision stated that enforcing this law "amounts to nothing more than an incidental economic effect" and that "does not mean that one of its constitutionally protected interests has been injured."

That "incidental" economic effect amounts to nearly $30,000 per year. For this self-funded newspaper, advertising revenues are critical to staying afloat. Oddly enough, the court even conceded that student papers have the right, under the First Amendment, to control their own content, including advertising. Good call Dick.

Vic Walczak, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh American Civil Liberties Union and attorney for the case, was disappointed that the Pitt News lost. The Student Press Law Center's Web site quoted Walczak as saying that "we have not finished analyzing the decision and the opinion. We have not decided what our next step is going to be and whether we're going to ask the Supreme Court to take it or not."

Looking at this case initially, it seemed to me that Pennsylvania was cracking down on colleges and underage drinking. The state has traditionally been anti-alcohol and the effects can be seen across Pennsylvania, as liquor licenses are extremely difficult to qualify for, not to mention costly. However, there was more to it than popular papers and journals reported. To get to the beef of the issue, I called the Pitt News' editor in chief, Rehan Nasir.

Nasir said that the ACLU didn't stress the key points in the trial that it should have, noting that money issues were the central point to the ACLU's case. Despite the loss of nearly 30 grand every year, the newspaper's operating budget is somewhere near a half-million dollars per year.

Nasir continued on that what would seem like an obvious point, but what Walczak never addressed was, "Why only alcohol?" The argument can easily be made that alcohol has less of a debilitating effect on college students than either tobacco or pornography. We all know from the public service announcements that tobacco has 100 more poisons than rat poison. On the other hand, consuming two or three alcoholic beverages daily has been shown to lower cancer risks. Nevertheless, only alcohol is banned in college publications.

Additionally, there are two papers with circulations about the same as the Pitt News: City Paper and In Pittsburgh, which are both distributed next to Pitt's campus. Each runs extensive ads for alcohol and aren't regulated. Pitt News has even proven that 75 percent of its readership is over the age of 21. For Nasir, the law seems to be doing nothing more than aiding in the regulation of underage drinking, a trend that the Pennsylvania Liquor Board has had difficulty in controlling recently. Nasir let me in on his feelings, saying that, "I just think the law is really, really ridiculous." Despite all this, the ACLU still lost.

Executive director of the Student Press Law Center, Mark Goodman, came to the credit of the ACLU. Since Nasir was critical of the ACLU's case, consulting a third party was a necessity. Goodman did say that "in retrospect, there may have been some additional ways to argue this case." However, "it appeared the three judges on the panel already had a decision made and were just trying to justify it." Beware of the conspiracy of state government.

Each day, educational institutions are being hedged by political correctness legislation, and now, it seems that our First Amendment rights are dissipating. I pray that Nasir presses the ACLU to appeal to the Supreme Court and to forward a better line of argumentation. Pitt winning this case will have an impact on its own rights, but also on the rights of colleges and media nationwide. The Pitt News may only be a single battle, but it's a step to winning a war.

Nick Zeckets can be reached at Nick.Zeckets@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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