In the legal annals of the United States, commercial speech hasn't been accorded the same level of Constitutional protection as, say, political or artistic speech.
That's why federal attorneys are on solid legal ground in going after foreign companies that pay US media to advertise their gambling websites.
Even though the Justice Department has no jurisdiction over foreign-based gambling itself, it rightly argues that because foreign Internet gambling operations are illegal in the US, by extension, so are ads that direct people to those sites. And such ads involve more than just words. They're a call to make a commercial transaction, taking them beyond just "speech."
Still, a Louisiana company that posts a directory of both foreign and domestic online casinos filed suit last month against the Justice Department, claiming it violated the Constitution's guarantee of free speech when it began a grand jury probe into companies that post online ads for offshore casinos. The firm charged the move has a chilling effect on speech.
Indeed, that investigation already has prompted two radio conglomerates, Clear Channel Communications and Infinity Broadcasting, along with the Discovery cable TV channel, to stop carrying ads for offshore casinos. Internet search engines Yahoo and Google stopped accepting such ads in April due to the probe.
It's bad enough that most states allow so many forms of betting at all, further fueling gambling addiction and its myriad attendant problems. But the world of cyberspace has put offshore gambling front and center on computer screens before millions of Americans. In fact, the majority of offshore casino bets is made by Americans accessing illegal Internet gaming portals; worldwide, Internet gambling revenue totaled some $5.7 billion in 2003, according to Christiansen Capital Advisors, a market-research firm.
Beyond the issue of such ads, Congress still needs to revise the 1961 Wire Act (which prohibits placing or taking bets across state lines using the telephone or wire services) to specifically include the Internet. Bills that would do just that have not moved out of committee. Congress should not let this slip through the cracks.