January 29, 2019

Markets & Free Enterprise

New VA Law is a Sign of Freer Drinks for the Future

By: Josh Evans

New legislation in Virginia would lift much of the state’s heavy restrictions on the right of bars and restaurants to advertise their happy hour offerings.

Under current law, businesses in Virginia cannot advertise specific happy hour prices online or on any signage outside of the building itself, and while the existence of a happy hour can be advertised outside the bar, the language that can be used is narrowly restricted to “happy hour” or “drink specials,” prohibiting any sort of creative phrasing or catchy branding. Perhaps most confusingly, bars cannot offer “two-for-one” specials, though mathematically equivalent half price drinks are perfectly fine.

Bills to lift these restrictions have already passed the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates; now all the remains is for the two chambers to reconcile the two versions of the bill, and for Governor Ralph Northam to sign it into law.

The legislation is largely seen as a response to a lawsuit filed by local restaurateur Geoff Tracy, who was represented by Pacific Legal Foundation. The lawsuit argues that Virginia’s restrictions on happy hour advertising violate first amendment speech rights.

“The government shouldn’t be able to censor truthful, non-misleading speech simply because it thinks censorship is good for you,” Anastasia Boden, attorney at PLF, said in a press release. “It can’t hide information from the public merely because it’s afraid of what you might do with it. The right to share that information is protected by the First Amendment.”

While the proposed bill would address Tracy’s complaint, it would also moot the court case challenging the regulations, preventing the possibility of a decision that could have even broader impact on Virginia’s regulation of alcohol.

While Virginia’s law is among the more strangely specific of its kind, it’s far from the only senseless restriction of alcohol freedom. Around the country, states place heavy restrictions on advertisement, business hours, and even the alcohol content of beers sold in bars. Fortunately, thanks to a mix of legislation and court challenges, many of these unnecessary limits are going the way of Prohibition itself.