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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Vets Lose Challenge to Anti-Gambling Laws

(CN) - A Florida county can ban simulated gambling games, a federal judge ruled, rejecting the constitutional challenge leveled by a veterans group that operates online sweepstakes.

Seminole County in central Florida passed an ordinance that bans simulated gambling devices, which it defines as a game that is "ordinarily played in a casino," and offers a payoff using a device, such as a computer, and a coin, ticket or other object that the user buys.

Two affiliates of Allied Veterans of the World sued the county over the law, which they say interferes with their local internet centers. Clients of the veteran group buy Internet time to use the center's computers and in return get entered into the group's sweepstakes.

"The customer has three options to find out whether he won the sweepstakes: he can ask the cashier; he can use the 'quick reveal' option on the computer, which 'simply displays by alphanumeric text the results of each entry without fanfare'; or he can he can play a video simulation of a casino game-for example a video slot machine," according to the judge's summary of the complaint. "Playing the game does not affect the outcome of the sweepstakes; it is merely an entertaining method of delivering the results. If the customer wins the sweepstakes, he is entitled to a prize."

Similar entities and their operators - Phone-Sweeps; Hassan Salem Malih dba Empire Phonesweep; Jack's Business Centers and Darrell Agostino - intervened as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The court agreed in February that the plaintiffs were entitled to a restraining order since some of their games constituted protected speech under the First Amendment. Upon closer inspection, however, U.S. District Judge John Antoon II found that there was no constitutional issue.

"Although the Order correctly determined that video games can constitute protected speech, a thorough examination of the parties' arguments and of the Ordinance yields the conclusion that the Ordinance does not prohibit that protected speech," Antoon wrote. "Instead, the Ordinance prohibits only conduct."

The sweepstakes operators compared their games to "World of Warcraft," in which online gamers create virtual characters for "sale of trade," by saying the "object" players use to access the game is a credit card number.

Antoon disagreed. "This is clearly contrary to the plain language of the ordinance," Antoon wrote, as the ordinance does not include a credit card number in its definition of "object." He also pointed out the "World of Warcraft" is not considered a "game" as defined by the ordinance.

Antoon also rejected comparisons of the sweepstakes games to simulated child pornography, which is legal.

"The simulated child pornography was not protected merely because it was 'simulated'; it was protected because it constituted protected speech," Antoon wrote, adding that "the Ordinance here prohibits conduct - not speech."

He also declined to read the ordinance as overbroad for banning legal conduct.

"This assertion is entirely irrelevant," he wrote. "If legislative bodies were prohibited from regulating previously unregulated conduct, nearly every new law would be declared unconstitutional. Such an absurd result is clearly not contemplated by the overbreadth doctrine."

Antoon also shot down the plaintiffs' claims that the ordinance does not establish a reasonable relationship under the Due Process Clause.

"It makes people liable for their own acts of managing, supervising and maintaining simulated gambling devices, but nowhere does the ordinance imply that owners or managers will be liable for the acts of third parties," the 20-page ruling states.

Antoon clarified that the law "in no way prohibits access to the internet."

"None of the video games at issue is banned on its own - only the playing of such a game in conjunction with the possibility of a payoff is banned," he wrote.

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