Fed. court refuses to block ordinance aimed at shutting down Internet cafes

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Amid a statewide debate about whether the businesses are illegal gambling parlors, a federal appeals court this week refused to block a Seminole County ordinance aimed at shutting down Internet cafes, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned down a request for a preliminary injunction against the ordinance, which the Seminole County Commission approved in January 2011.

Cafes have been battling the ordinance in federal court in Orlando for more than a year, contending in part that it violates First Amendment rights. While the overall case is unresolved, U.S. District Judge John Antoon II declined last year to issue a preliminary injunction — which led to the issue going to the Atlanta-based appeals court.

A three-judge panel Wednesday did not take a position on the constitutionality of the ordinance but said the lower court “did not abuse its discretion in denying preliminary injunctive relief.” In an order last May on the preliminary injunction, Antoon wrote that opponents of the ordinance “have not shown that they have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their claim.”

The Seminole County case is part of broad legal and political battles about Internet cafes, which have popped up in strip shopping centers across the state in recent years. Critics argue the businesses offer illegal games similar to slot machines; the industry says it offers computerized versions of legal sweepstakes.

With questions in various communities about the legality of the café operations, lawmakers this year considered bills that would have banned or regulated the games. But the House and Senate could not agree, leaving the issue unresolved.

Some local governments, such as Leon and Duval counties, have passed ordinances to regulate the businesses. But Seminole County went further last year, attempting to shut down the operations.

“(The businesses challenging the ordinance) deceive members of the public, including the elderly and the economically disadvantaged, into believing that they are engaging in a lawfully permitted gaming activity,” Seminole County said in one of its filings in the lawsuit.

The case was initially filed by Allied Veterans of the World, a non-profit group that is a major player in the Internet café industry. Other café operators and a software firm later joined the challenge.

Allied Veterans argued in court documents that the ordinance restricts free-speech rights because it targets computerized sweepstakes. It also likens the games to sweepstakes offered to customers by companies such as McDonald’s.

“Apparently, it would be acceptable for Allied Veterans to use paper or speak through a tin can connected to another with string to notify its customers that they had won the sweepstakes, but it is not acceptable to communicate the same material using a computer display,” one of the filings said.

But in his May order on the preliminary injunction, Antoon said the ordinance only regulated “conduct” not speech. He said the ordinance did not ban the computerized games, only the possibility of a payoff for winning.

In court records, the cafes said Seminole County started enforcement efforts after Antoon rejected the preliminary injunction. Some cafes closed, while others continued operating.

The case could continue for another year, as a trial date is scheduled in January 2013.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.