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EDITORIAL: Hawaii lawmaker targets Las Vegas casino promotions

Stanley Chang has a law degree from Harvard, but he must have slept through a few key classes.

Mr. Chang, a Democrat who serves in the Hawaii state Senate, is unhappy that thousands of residents from his home state travel to Southern Nevada each year to enjoy the local hospitality and the entertainment and gaming options. So popular is Las Vegas with Hawaiians that the city has gained the nickname the “ninth island.”

Mr. Chang isn’t amused. He apparently views Las Vegas as some sort of modern-day Sodom that attracts nothing but heathens and ne’er-do-wells seeking to engage in all manner of wicked behavior. To save his fellow islanders from temptation, he has sponsored legislation that “prohibits advertisements” in Hawaii “for Nevada hotels, resorts or other recreational services that promote casinos or gambling devices licensed by the Nevada Gaming Commission.”

The proposal also imposes an excise tax on companies promoting casino vacation packages in the state, explaining that Hawaii “residents generate hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions, in economic activity in other jurisdictions related to gambling, and in return, Hawaii receives no benefit.”

Hawaii is one of two states — the other being Utah — in which all forms of gambling are illegal.

Hawaii lawmakers are, of course, free to make their own decisions about legalizing or outlawing games of chance in their state. But Mr. Chang’s bill is a constitutional train wreck, raising obvious First Amendment issues as well as concerns about illegal meddling in interstate commerce by targeting a lone state.

Mr. Chang may be basing his legislation on a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which a 5-4 majority upheld a Puerto Rico law which limited advertising for casino gambling that targeted island residents. But while that case has never been officially overturned, a series of subsequent rulings strengthening constitutional protections for commercial speech have eroded its relevance as a precedent, and rightfully so.

“The First Amendment directs us to be especially skeptical of regulations that seek to keep people in the dark for what the government perceives to be their own good,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote as part of a unanimous 1996 decision tossing out a Rhode Island advertising ban on alcohol prices, in which four justices also called for repealing the Puerto Rico decision.

If Mr. Chang prefers to cover his ears and eyes whenever he sees or hears a promotion for the California Hotel, that’s his prerogative. But our bet is that most of his fellow Hawaiians would prefer to be treated like adults and left to make their own decisions.

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