Chef Geoff’s v. The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority

Chef Geoff clears away unconstitutional “Happy Hour” gag rule

Cases > Economic Liberty > Chef Geoff’s v. The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority
Case Status: Won: Law was changed to allow truthful speech.

Award-winning restaurateur Chef Geoff Tracy owns restaurants in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Only Virginia, however, restricted the way Chef Geoff advertises happy hour specials. While state law allowed businesses to offer happy hour, it banned advertising happy hour prices, as well as the use of any terms other than “happy hour” or “drink specials.” Also, while restaurants may offer half-priced drinks, it was illegal to call these specials “two-for-one.” In a lawsuit filed on behalf of Chef Geoff, PLF argued that Virginia’s happy hour advertising restrictions prevent restaurants from speaking freely and truthfully about their business—a clear violation of the First Amendment. In response to the lawsuit, Virginia changed its laws, restoring the rights of its citizens.

Chef Geoff Tracy is an entrepreneur, cookbook author, and owner of restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. Top in his class at the Culinary Institute of America, Chef Geoff’s numerous awards include The Best Neighbor Award (for contributions to the community) and Washingtonian Magazine’s “Best Local Chef.” He also served on the executive board of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Chef Geoff advertises his restaurants’ happy hour specials on his website and on menus displayed outside of his restaurant. These ads show the specials and prices of beers, wine by the glass, and cocktails. They also advertise “Wine Down Wednesday,” a weekly offering in which patrons can enjoy a bottle of wine for half price. On “Margarita Thursday” Chef Geoff’s offers $5 margaritas. But because they include actual prices and creative phrasing rather than the generic “Happy Hour,” the ads violated Virginia’s advertising restrictions.

While the state allows happy hour specials, it banned advertising happy hour prices, as well as the use of any terms other than “happy hour” or “drink specials.” Also, while restaurants may offer half-priced drinks, it was illegal to call these specials “two-for-one.”

The Constitution guarantees Chef Geoff’s right to talk freely and truthfully about his restaurants’ happy hours—including prices and creative terminology. But under state law, he faces fines and penalties for doing so. Representing Chef Geoff, PLF sued Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control in federal court to vindicate his First Amendment rights, and put bureaucrats on notice that they can’t censor truthful, non-misleading information.

After a nearly year-long legal battle, the state changed its law to permit happy hour advertising, restoring the free speech rights of its citizens.

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What’s at stake?

  • The Constitution protects all speech, regardless of whether it’s commercial in nature. By prohibiting restaurants from communicating truthful, non-misleading speech about their business practices, Virginia’s law violated the First Amendment.
  • The First Amendment sets a very high bar for government when it muzzles free speech. Government can’t censor truthful, non-misleading information just because it thinks censorship might be in the public’s interest.

Case Timeline

Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss - Chef Geoff

May 29, 2018 Download

1st Amended Complaint - Chef Geoff

May 01, 2018 Download

Complaint - Chef Geoff

March 28, 2018 Download

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