Suit seeks halt to crackdown on Net betting

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 7, 2009 - 8:05 PM

Group says Minnesota's effort to force Internet service providers to block gambling sites is an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights.

A senior state law enforcement official is being sued because he wants to prevent Minnesotans from gambling online.

The Interactive Media Entertainment and Gaming Association (iMEGA) filed the suit Wednesday in federal court in Minneapolis, seeking to prevent the state from enforcing its order directing 11 Internet service providers to block Minnesotans from accessing 200 websites for wagering. The nonprofit group describes its mission on its website as the continued growth and innovation of the Internet.

The suit names as defendant John Willems, in his role as director of the Department of Public Safety's Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement division.

Also Monday, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, introduced legislation that seeks to accomplish many of the same goals as the suit.

Willems said Thursday that it "would be inappropriate for me comment at this time" about the suit. He said the challenge is "being reviewed and referred to legal counsel."

Minnesota says all online gambling within the state is illegal, even if the games are hosted overseas. Operators of these types of sites are most commonly in the United Kingdom and the Caribbean.

Willems' division gave written notices last week to AT&T Internet Services, Charter Communications, Comcast Cable, DirecTV, Dish Network, Embarq and Sprint/Nextel, Frontier Communications, Qwest, Verizon Wireless and Wildblue Communications. There is no indication yet whether any of them intend to act on the state's directive.

"We are in the process of reviewing the Department of Public Safety letter, and we are going to respond to inquiries once we have completed the internal review," said Brigid Smith, a spokeswoman for Frontier.

Gambling vs. free speech rights

In its suit, iMEGA contends that Minnesota lacks the authority to compel the Internet service providers (ISPs) to block residents' access to the sites, and that its actions violate constitutionally protected free speech rights.

"It's our hope that Minnesota will recognize their error and drop their blocking order," said Joe Brennan Jr., chairman of iMEGA. "Censoring Internet access for Minnesota residents would establish a troubling precedent of government intrusion into the online world, and we just can't allow that to happen."

iMEGA, based in Washington, D.C., also has sent letters to each of the ISPs contacted by Minnesota, contending that the state has erred in citing a federal law from the 1960s regarding the use of telephone and telegraph wires for the transmission of illegal wagers.

"Because website operators are not subscribers of yours, have no contracts with you and are not provided facilities by you, you should be aware that [the state] is attempting to mislead -- either intentionally or inadvertently -- you into believing that you are bound by federal law to do what [the state] asks," the letter said.

The association has brought court challenges, at the state and federal levels, in support of the Internet gambling industry.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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