Court puts gambling back on the airwaves

Supreme Court finds too many flaws in law, allows casino ads on TV and

America has taken another major step toward acceptance of legalized gambling with the US Supreme Court striking down a 65-year ban on TV and radio advertisements of casino gambling.

In a unanimous decision on June 14, the justices ruled that the long-time ban on broadcast advertising violated the free-speech rights of casinos to inform potential gamblers of legal activities and services.

First Amendment advocates call it a key decision for the expansion of protections to commercial speech. Others see it as a setback to efforts to control the growing costs of gambling in America.

The justices avoided becoming mired in that debate. "It is not our function to weigh the policy arguments on either side of the nationwide debate over whether and to what extent casinos and other forms of gambling should be legalized," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court. "But we cannot ignore Congress' unwillingness to adopt a single national policy that consistently endorses [the government's interests supporting the ban]."

The court ruled that in the years since Congress passed the ban, too many exceptions - for lotteries, charity games, and even Indian-run casinos - have been allowed by federal lawmakers, blurring the purpose of the advertising prohibition.

In effect, the justices recognized that when the ban was enacted, the overwhelming concern of lawmakers was to prevent the social costs of gambling, such as compulsive gambling and crime. But in the years since, many states and Indian tribes have tapped legalized gambling as a source of revenue. As those forms became more accepted, Congress dropped the advertising ban applying to them. But Congress has refused to drop the prohibition on casino advertising.

The court swept aside that congressional preference, acknowledging the lawmakers inconsistency in this area. "Had the federal government adopted a more coherent policy ... this might be a different case," Justice Stevens wrote.

The high court's action ends the ban on grounds that it violates the casino and broadcasters' First Amendment right to engage in truthful, nonmisleading advertising of legal products and services.

The decision is consistent with the trend at the high court in so-called commercial speech cases in which the justices have gradually expanded the free speech protections afforded to non-misleading advertising.

"It's a very important victory for advertising and for freedom of speech in the commercial marketplace," says Rodney Smolla, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. "It once again tells up that there is no vice exception to the First Amendment."

The opinion will make it harder in the future for the government to censor advertisements when they contain truthful information that might help consumers compare prices or become aware of certain legal services or entertainment.

The court declined to use this case as a vehicle to afford the same level of free-speech protection to commercial speech as exists for political speech.

The decision will likely spark a flood of new ads seeking to lure prospective gamblers into casinos. By lifting the national ban, even residents in states without Indian or other legalized casinos would be reachable by such ads.

In addition, analysts say the decision marks another step along the way toward the complete acceptance of gambling in all its forms by the government. It will likely result in some predictable social costs in crime and addictive gambling, and may further strengthen the hand of the gambling industry as a social and political force in America.

"It's another step down a path that leads to a major, major social problem for the United States," says Tom Grey, head of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. "Now what we have is gambling being able to advertise itself on Main St. as a form of entertainment like shopping or the movies."

The decision stems from a legal challenge to the casino advertising ban by a trade group of television and radio stations, the Greater New Orleans Broadcasting Association. The group argued that the ban was an unconstitutional infringement of their right to speak freely and truthfully about casino gambling.

The federal government defended the ban, saying it did not violate the First Amendment, but rather was a legitimate means to reduce gambling's social costs.

A federal judge and an appeals court upheld the ad ban. The case reached the US Supreme Court in 1996, but was remanded so that the appeals court could reconsider it in light of the high court's decision in a similar commercial speech decision. In that case, the court struck down a ban on liquor advertisements.

Cases on religious schools, job bias

In other action yesterday, the Supreme Court:

* Took a case that will decide whether taxpayer money can be used to buy computers for religious schools. When the church-state ruling comes next year, it may determine the scope of federal efforts to connect all American classrooms to the Internet.

* Ruled a federal antibias agency can order other federal agencies to pay damages to employees they discriminate against. The 5-to-4 decision said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can require federal agencies to pay compensatory damages, intended to reimburse for harm a worker suffered.

* Refused to free Libya from a US lawsuit seeking damages for its alleged role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland. The court said Libya can be held accountable in US courts.

* Refused to spare Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry and six other anti-abortion activists from $600,000 in fines stemming from efforts to blockade New York City abortion clinics a decade ago.

- Associated Press

* Staff writer Yvonne Zipp contributed to this article.

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