One word, different views of Miss. law on campus alcohol

Published 10:33 pm Saturday, November 18, 2006

Although they admit they have not been able to enforce it, University of Mississippi officials have long interpreted state law as clearly banning alcohol consumption on their campus.

When the university’s new alcohol and drug abuse task force met for the first time recently, university attorney Lee Tyner reaffirmed that understanding to Chancellor Robert Khayat.

Mississippi State University officials see it otherwise, based on the lack of one word — “universities.”

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State law prohibits “the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages in or on the campus of any public school or college, and no alcoholic beverage shall be for sale or consumed at any public athletic event at any grammar or high school or any college.”

Ole Miss interprets “college” in the law to include public universities.

MSU officials have said another section of the same law specifies both “college” and “university.” The omission on the second reference, they say, leaves university campuses open for legal alcohol consumption.

“Universities are subject to the laws of the municipalities and counties in which they are located,” said Bill Kibler, MSU’s vice president for student affairs.

“It has been my understanding that whatever the local municipality or county allows in terms of beverages, it is not against the law for someone of age to be in possession of (that) permitted form of alcohol on the campus,” he said.

Liquor and wine are legal in Oktibbeha County, where most of the MSU campus lies. Beer is legal only in Starkville, with a small part of the campus in its borders.

Who can settle the disagreement? A spokesman from the attorney general’s office said no official opinion has been given to any university regarding campus alcohol possession.

Under the MSU interpretation, wine and distilled liquors may be consumed openly on its campus by people age 21 and older, except at athletic events, which are covered by a Southeastern Conference ban on alcohol. Most of the campus, including residences other than Fraternity Row and a few sorority houses, lies outside Starkville city limits and within Oktibbeha County, where beer is illegal.

Bob Collins, chairman of the MSU Student Affairs alcohol task force, said Monday some at the university have even considered seeking resort status for the campus. Such a designation would allow all forms of alcohol to be served by properly licensed caterers, and hours of service could be extended.

On Wednesday, university presidents from throughout the state began to grapple with the realities of campus alcohol consumption.

In the past few weeks, Ole Miss has been the target of criticism after the death of a campus policeman on a traffic stop with a student, who toxicology reports show had drugs and alcohol in his system. Two other students have died in alcohol-related accidents near campus since 2003 and several others away from campus.

At a meeting of the State College Board, each president was asked to present a synopsis of his university’s alcohol policy.

Policies ranged from absolute bans on alcohol possession by anyone to general acceptance of consumption by people over 21 except “in plain view.”

Khayat has openly acknowledged the Ole Miss policy, which prohibits all alcohol possession, is not well enforced — an issue being considered by his recently chartered alcohol and drug abuse task force.

Although MSU contends it is governed by the local option laws of Oktibbeha County, its campus police department thinks otherwise — reflected in “Frequently Answered Questions” on its Web site

The fourth question on the page asks, “I am of legal age to consume an alcoholic beverage. May I do so on campus?”

Campus police answer, “No. State code 67-1-37 prohibits the consumption of alcoholic beverages on the campus of any public school or college. Additionally, university policy and rules prohibit alcoholic beverage possession and/or consumption. Individuals found violating this law and rules are subject to arrest and/or referral to the dean of students.”