It’s official: Utah’s liquor laws are “irrational.” Here’s something else, albeit unofficial: They’ll stay that way as long as the Utah political establishment gets its way.
We would hope that after the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned U.S. District Judge David Sam, reinforcing that advertising of legal products, like alcohol, is protected free speech, Utah officials would follow suit. But the storm troopers at the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) didn’t get the message.
They’ve been huddling behind closed doors trying to think up new ways to keep their chokehold on bars, taverns, clubs and restaurants—say nothing of free speech. Although it’s true that ads for liquor appear in national publications distributed all over Utah, the DABC insists that those same advertisers can’t buy space in newspapers like this one. That, despite the appellate court’s ruling that Utah laws banning such advertising be suspended on the grounds that they are unconstitutional—oh yeah, and irrational. Tell us something we didn’t know.
It has been well documented that the DABC has fined companies and closed clubs because they didn’t like some advertising, whether it mentioned alcohol or not. The DABC appears more intent on policing its version of morality than managing liquor. Ironically, at the same time, DABC officials have been schooling Olympic boosters on how to set up special bars so out-of-town journalists and others can get a drink during the 2002 Winter Games without club memberships or the obligatory appetizer before ordering wine at restaurants. The DABC defines hypocrisy.
Unfortunately, where strange behavior surrounding alcohol is concerned, the DABC isn’t alone. In 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed protection of speech for liquor distillers and distributors in the case of Liquor Mart vs. Rhode Island. Somewhat similarly, the Utah Legislature had made a law that allowed advertising of beer but not liquor. The Catalyst magazine filed suit in Utah and Judge David Sam let it sit on his desk for almost four years without ruling. There is plenty of cowardice and hypocrisy to go around in this case.
Finally, growing understandably frustrated, Brian Barnard, acting for The Catalyst, filed a motion for summary judgement. When Judge Sam denied the motion, Barnard appealed to the 10th Circuit. The justices ruled that allowing beer but not liquor advertising was “irrational.” But now that the ruling has come back, there is nothing but hand wringing from DABC.
So liquor distributors, clubs and restaurants continue to wait, not wanting to ire the all-powerful DABC. Distributors and distillers that do anger the agency could find their products absent in Utah Liquor Stores. Clubs and restaurants that do the same might find their liquor licenses in jeopardy. Around and around we go, where the bottle stops, nobody knows.