A federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday that a Virginia state ban on alcohol advertisements in college newspapers violated the First Amendment.

The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board adopted the regulation to combat underage and abusive drinking. In a split decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Fourth Circuit said the ban unlawfully prevented students 21 and older – the majority of the papers’ readers – from reading truthful information about a product they could legally buy and consume.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia represented the student newspapers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) and the University of Virginia. ACLU attorney Rebecca Glenberg, who argued for the schools, said today that the case was “about freedom of the press and about college newspapers’ right to decide for themselves what kind of advertising is appropriate.”

“We found it particularly disturbing that the regulation singles out college newspapers for special burdens,” she said.

A spokesman for the Virginia attorney general’s office, Brian Gottstein, said in an email that the state had yet to decide whether to appeal. “We will be reviewing those options with our client,” he said. A representative of the alcohol control board was not immediately available for comment.

“Unless our analysis shows that a Virginia regulation is unconstitutional, this office has a duty to defend it,” Gottstein said. “The Fourth Circuit previously ruled that the law is constitutional on its face. By a 2-1 decision today, the Fourth Circuit ruled it unconstitutional as it was applied in this case, based on the same set of facts from the last time it heard the case.”

Representatives of the Virginia attorney general’s office and the alcohol control board were not immediately available for comment.

The court reversed a trial judge’s ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia upholding the ban. Judge Stephanie Thacker, writing for the majority, said the regulation was too broad. By barring the papers from advertising to legal drinkers, the alcohol control board “attempts to keep would-be drinkers in the dark based on what the ABC perceives to be their own good.” Joining Thacker was Judge Robert King.

Judge Dennis Shedd dissented, writing that he thought the regulation reasonable. “[I]t is a minor limitation on such advertising in college newspapers as part of a comprehensive plan to address a very serious problem,” he said.

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com.