Justices lift ad ban on casinos

Court overturns radio-TV restriction in case from La.


June 15, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court passed up a chance yesterday to expand the constitutional right to advertise, but it did overturn restrictions on advertising by private gambling casinos.

By a unanimous vote, the court struck down a federal law that prohibits radio and TV advertising by privately owned casinos. Currently, those casinos are legal in 11 states.

The case had been closely watched for signs that the court might give advertising and other forms of "commercial speech" added protection under the First Amendment. The court, in fact, was urged to make commercial expression on par with political expression -- an equality that has the support of at least one member of the court, Justice Clarence Thomas.

However, the court said it could rule on the ban on broadcast of casino ads without adopting any new constitutional approach. It struck down the ban based on the approach it has used since 1980, which balances the government's reasons for restricting commercial speech against the effectiveness of the restriction in achieving the government goal.

The ban on radio and TV ads by casinos, the court concluded, has so many "exemptions and inconsistencies" that it does not serve the federal government's purposes of trying to discourage gambling -- especially binge gambling by those who cannot stop playing slot machines or other games of chance -- and trying to deter crime associated with gambling.

The decision puts private casinos on an advertising par with similar establishments run by Indian tribes -- one of the fastest-growing sectors of the gambling industry -- and by state or local governments, all of which were exempted from the broadcast ban. The ban did not apply to betting on horse or dog races.

"Any measure of the effectiveness of the government's attempt to minimize the social costs of gambling cannot ignore Congress' simultaneous encouragement of tribal casino gambling," the court said in an opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens.

The ban outlaws advertisements containing truthful information about gambling at private casinos "despite the fact that messages about the availability of such gambling are being conveyed over the airwaves by other speakers," the court noted.

The court ruled in a case from Louisiana, where casino gambling is legal.

The ad ban was challenged by a group of broadcast stations in the New Orleans area.

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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