WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court allowed the states yesterday to try to prevent heavy drinking on college campuses by banning liquor and beer ads in student newspapers.
Four years ago, the legislature in Pennsylvania, a state where binge drinking by students has become a high-priority issue for college administrators, imposed a flat ban on "all alcoholic beverage and malt beverage advertising" in any newspaper or other publication of any educational institution.
That law withstood a constitutional challenge last June in a federal appeals court in Philadelphia. The case was filed by the Pitt News, a daily newspaper run by students at the University of Pittsburgh.
Yesterday, without explanation, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the newspaper, which claimed its First Amendment free press rights had been violated by the enforcement of the ban against ads from restaurants and bars.
The court's brief order does not mean it agreed with the lower court that the student newspaper's rights had not been violated. But the action does leave the newspaper without a means to challenge the law's effect on its revenue and the effect of lost revenue on its news operation.
The newspaper's appeal said it was not aware of any case in which the Supreme Court had upheld a flat prohibition on the content of "a targeted class of newspapers."
The state Liquor Control Board enforces the Pennsylvania law only against those who sell liquor or beer and not against student newspapers directly.
The Pitt News contended that it lost more than $17,000 in revenue from advertising after enforcement of the state measure began in 1997.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the newspaper's only loss was economic and that the First Amendment did not shield it from that consequence.
Among other orders yesterday, the Supreme Court refused, over the lone dissent of Justice Clarence Thomas, to consider a New Jersey day-care teacher's plea for the right to sue those who prosecuted her for child sex abuse. She had been freed from prison after serving five years of her 47-year prison sentence when a state court overturned her conviction because of coercion of child witnesses against her.
Also yesterday, the court held a hearing on a case that will test the willingness of the court's majority in favor of states' rights to take a bold new step to shield states from civil rights lawsuits.
Some of the justices seemed sympathetic to a plea by a lawyer for the state of Alabama for a ruling to block all lawsuits against state agencies by private individuals who claim that officials discriminated on the basis of race or ethnic background in a program paid for with federal money.
That issue arises in a case filed by a Mobile woman, Martha Sandoval, a native of Mexico, who speaks and understands little English. She could not complete a written exam for a driver's license because the state, under an English-only state constitutional amendment, gives such tests only in English.
Her lawsuit contends that this system has a discriminatory effect on minorities, in violation of federal regulations governing the use of federal funds.
A federal appeals court allowed her to sue, but Alabama took the dispute to the Supreme Court. A ruling is expected by early summer.