Utah bars claim victory in drink-special fight

AP News
Posted: Aug 29, 2012 4:53 PM
Utah bars claim victory in drink-special fight

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah restaurant and bar owners are toasting the settlement of a lawsuit in their fight to get the state to allow drink specials.

The Utah Hospitality Association sued in federal court, claiming Utah's law prohibiting establishments from offering discounted drinks or happy hour violates the Sherman Act, which protects against anticompetitive conduct.

The lawsuit was dismissed this week after the parties settled their dispute, according to court records.

Allen Whittle, the association's vice president and owner of Bogeys Social Club, said the state agreed to allow establishments to change their drink prices daily, but they're still not allowed to advertise them as specials or discounts.

Whittle claimed that the settlement is a partial victory but said the group might sue again over the ban on advertising, claiming it is a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.

"We disagree with it, but that's what they're telling us we have to do," Whittle said Wednesday. "We just can't call them discounts or specials.

"Happy hour has been illegal in the state for years," he added. "We were just fighting to have drink specials and basically be able to change our pricing daily if we want to."

An initial lawsuit was dismissed in March by a federal judge who cited a lack of evidence proving Utah's existing liquor laws hurt businesses. The association filed an amended complaint the next month, and the state again sought a dismissal.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Kyle Kaiser said there was no victory this week, noting the only thing the association won was "peace of mind."

The state has always allowed establishments to alter drink prices, Kaiser said, as long as the prices remain the same through an entire day, and they are not advertised as specials or discounts.

The laws remain unchanged, he said, and the Utah Hospitality Association was merely educated about what they can and cannot do under existing state statutes.

"If they have a partial victory, it's just peace of mind," Kaiser said. "We didn't do anything. We did not change our position. We did not give them anything."

He acknowledged Utah's liquor laws can be complicated and confusing, given the litany of statutes under state-run control.

"The law is difficult, and there are many, many parts of the laws that all have to work together and have to be interpreted," Kaiser said.

Restaurant and bar owners for years have complained that Utah's alcohol laws inhibit business. The laws include some 300 pages of state statutes and significantly limit the number of available liquor licenses.

The hospitality group's initial lawsuit also sought to have a judge ban lawmakers from taking input from lobbyists for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when drafting liquor policy.

More than 60 percent of the state's population belongs to the Mormon church, which encourages its members to abstain from alcohol. More than 80 percent of the state Legislature is Mormon.

U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins noted in March that the argument was "interesting" but more proof was needed to explain how it crossed the line.