A split panel of the Fourth Circuit today held that Virginia’s ban on certain alcohol advertising in college newspapers violates the First Amendment as applied to Collegiate Times (at Virginia Tech) and Cavalier Daily (at UVA). This holding of as-applied unconstitutionality comes almost three-and-a-half years after the Fourth Circuit upheld the same regulation against a facial challenge in Educational Media Co. v. Swecker, 602 F.3d 583 (4th Cir. 2010). The panel declined to decide whether to apply a form of heightened scrutiny to the Virginia speech regulation, but held that the regulation violated the fourth prong of the four-prong Central Hudson test for assessing the validity of commercial speech restrictions. The opinion for the court in today’s decision, Educational Media Co. v. Insley, was authored by Judge Thacker and joined in by Judge King. Judge Shedd (the author of the panel opinion on the facial challenge) dissented. (For more information and background, see the ACLU’s Press Release touting the victory and AP coverage in the Washington Post.)
As described by the Fourth Circuit, the Central Hudson test provides that “a regulation of commercial speech will be upheld if (1) the regulated speech concerns lawful activity and is not misleading; (2) the regulation is supported by a substantial government interest; (3) the regulation directly advances that interest; and (4) the regulation is not more extensive than necessary to serve the government’s interest.” The parties agreed that prongs (1) and (2) were satisfied, and the court held that its earlier analysis in Swecker established that prong (3) was satisfied. Turning to prong (4), the court held that “the challenged regulation fails under the fourth Central Hudson prong because it prohibits large numbers of adults who are 21 years of age or older from receiving truthful information about a product that they are legally allowed to consume.” In support of this conclusion, the majority observed that “roughly 60% of the Collegiate Times’s readership is age 21 or older and the Cavalier Daily reaches approximately 10,000 students, nearly 64% of whom are age 21 or older.”
Reading today’s opinion in light of the Fourth Circuit’s earlier opinion in Swecker, one should feel some sympathy for Judge Lauck, who has now been twice reversed in this case. Judge Lauck initially held that the regulation violated the First Amendment on its face, only to be reversed in Swecker. Judge Lauck then upheld the regulation against an as-applied challenge under Swecker, only to be reversed in an opinion that, as a practical matter (though not as a technical matter), reaches the same bottom-line conclusion as Judge Lauck’s initial decision. Moreover, the main evidence relied upon by the Fourth Circuit panel in its consideration of the as-applied challenge was before the panel that decided Swecker and was discussed in Judge Moon’s dissenting opinion in that case. Although the opinion contains several passages discussing the distinction between facial and as-applied challenges, this is an area of the law that is as murky (or murkier) in the Fourth Circuit as it is elsewhere throughout the federal judiciary.