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Supreme Court Strikes Down Violent Video Game Law

27 Jun, 2011 By: Chris Tribbey

The Supreme Court ruled June 27 that California violated the First Amendment when it tried to force retailers to restrict the sale or rental of video games to minors, no matter how violent the content.

The 7-2 decision upheld a federal appeals court decision against a 2005 California statute that would have prohibited the distribution of violent games to minors, a law that called for fines of up to $1,000 against retailers for each violation.

“Spending hour upon hour controlling the actions of a character who guns down scores of innocent victims is not different in ‘kind’ from reading a description of violence in a work of literature,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, representing the court majority. However, while agreeing that the California law failed to pass Constitutional muster, Scalia noted that video games represent a new frontier for American law.

“There are reasons to suspect that the experience of playing violent video games just might be very different from reading a book, listening to the radio, or watching a movie or a television show,” he wrote.

Bo Anderson, president and CEO of the Entertainment Merchants Association, one of several trade associations that first challenged the 2005 law, was quick to praise the decision.

“EMA welcomes today’s Supreme Court ruling that let stand the Court of Appeals’ decision finding the California video game restriction law to be unconstitutional,” he said in a statement. “We are gratified that our position that the law violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression has been vindicated and there now can be no argument whether video games are entitled to the same protection as books, movies, music and other expressive entertainment.”

Michael D. Gallagher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, the lead party challenging the law, called the ruling “a historic and complete win for the First Amendment.”

“Today, the Supreme Court affirmed what we have always known: that free speech protections apply every bit as much to video games as they do to other forms of creative expression like books, movies and music,” he said in a statement.

“We are very gratified that our arguments — and those of over 180 other groups and individuals from across the ideological spectrum — were heard in this case,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s ruling reaffirmed that violent content — whether in film, broadcast TV, music or video games — can’t be regulated by the government.

“This country has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence,” the Supreme Court’s ruling reads. “And California’s claim that ‘interactive’ video games present special problems, in that the player participates in the violent action on screen and determines its outcome, is unpersuasive.”

Dissenting were justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer, with Breyer arguing that, when it comes to protecting minors, the court majority had failed to make the same distinction it has previously made between nudity and violence.

“Why are the words ‘kill,’ ‘maim’ and ‘dismember’ any more difficult to understand than the word ‘nudity?’” he wrote in the court’s dissenting opinion. “Video games combine physical action with expression. Were physical activity to predominate in a game, government could appropriately intervene, say by requiring parents to accompany children when playing a game involving actual target practice, or restricting the sale of toys presenting physical dangers to children.”

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