Time to Retire a Speech Ban from the Prohibition Era

The watering holes in Virginia, where I live, don’t seem to show much variety when it comes to advertising happy hour specials. Nor should you blame a lack of creativity on the part of saloon owners. Entrepreneurs like Chef Geoff Tracy have plenty of clever promotions they want to run, from “half priced bottles of wine” on “Wine Down Wednesdays” to “$5 drafts” on “Turn Down For What Tuesdays.” There’s just one problem: in the Old Dominion, it’s literally illegal to talk about happy hour outside of the restaurant.

In Virginia, any happy hour advertisement placed outside of a bar – whether it be a newspaper ad or tweet – is prohibited from including the most important piece of information: the promotion or discount. Businesses are limited to using the generic terms “Happy Hour” or “Drink Special” to describe their offerings. Fun and creativity are forbidden.

Of course, across the Potomac from my home state is a drinking town with a politics problem. Yet nobody seriously suggests that telling customers that appletinis are $2 off between 4pm and 6pm has led to rampant hooliganism in the swamp (not literal hooliganism, at least). The only thing Virginia has accomplished with its crackdown on creativity is to harm consumers, who are kept in the dark on what the market has to offer and prevented from making informed choices about how to spend their time or money. 

These laws aren’t just outdated, or paternalistic, or absurd; they have a real effect on business owners who have to increase their compliance costs and forfeit foot traffic in order to comply. Chef Geoff, for example, has locations not only in Virginia but also in DC and Maryland, where colorful advertising and truthful prices are perfectly legal. So he has to change his ads in Virginia to avoid saying what is perfectly legal (and equally innocuous) elsewhere.

Now, I’ve got a toddler and infant at home, so I’ve left the happy hour game behind. That’s why it’s appropriate that two millennial lawyers – double-shudder – at the Pacific Legal Foundation, Anastasia Boden and Tommy Berry, are the ones representing Chef Geoff in his new lawsuit to strike down Virginia’s ban on truthful speech on tippling. (Full disclosure: Both of these legal eagles are former Cato legal associates, proving once again that we instill only the highest priorities in my shop.)

As a legal matter, the First Amendment doctrine here isn’t mixed or watered-down, but straight-up and neat. The Supreme Court struck down a very similar law in a 1996 case called 44 Liquormart v. Rhode Island. There, Rhode Island had completely banned telling anyone the price of alcohol except for signs attached to the product itself, which could not be visible from outside the building. As the plurality opinion explained, “a State’s paternalistic assumption that the public will use truthful, nonmisleading commercial information unwisely cannot justify a decision to suppress it,” even if the product pertains to a “vice.” As a chaser, the opinion added that “it is perfectly obvious that alternative forms of regulation that would not involve any restriction on speech would be more likely to achieve the State’s goal of promoting temperance.” Both observations are equally true here.

Virginia’s alcohol laws are an outdated and ineffective relic of the Prohibition Era. The days of the inconspicuous speakeasy are long since past – save a few places where hipsters go to pay $16 a cocktail. No one should have to fear being rounded up by the booze police for daring to whisper “two-for-one Ketel One” outside her own bar. The courts should put the Beverage Code’s speech ban on the rocks and serve Virginians a First Amendment win right from the tap.