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Judge Halts Violent Game Law

10 Jul, 2003 By: Kurt Indvik

A federal district court appeals judge has stopped enforcement of a recently passed Washington State law making it illegal for retailers to rent or sell to minors videogames that depict harm being inflicted on law enforcement officers (VSM, July 6-12).

“Plaintiffs have raised serious questions regarding the constitutionality of House Bill 1009 and the balance of hardships tips in their favor,” Judge Robert S. Lasnik ruled.

The Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) and other trade groups appealing the legislation contended the law was flawed because it was based on inconclusive studies and restrictions potentially violated the First Amendment rights of retailers and their customers.

While the state may regulate speech based on content if it can show that the regulation is necessary to “serve a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly tailored to achieve that end,” Lasnik found that the various studies upon which the Legislature built the law did not prove that prohibiting to rent or sell videogames that depicted violence to law officers would further the “public safety” of such persons.

The VSDA and its co-plaintiffs “have raised serious questions regarding defendant's ability to show that the limitations imposed by the Act are the least restrictive alternative available or even that they will, in fact, alleviate the supposed threat in a direct and material way.”

If the state tried to broaden application of the law, which Governor Gary Locke signed in mid-May, it would likely “restrict access to games which mirror mainstream movies or reflect heroic struggles against corrupt regimes, such as “Minority Report: Everybody Runs.’

“This is a victory for the First Amendment rights of video retailers and their customers," said Bo Andersen, VSDA president. "It affirms that the government cannot restrict access to video games, even those that are – in the court's words – 'obnoxious', just because it doesn't like the messages they contain."

The state must either pursue appeal or go to trial. The defendants, the judge added in footnote, “face an uphill struggle at trial to overcome the ‘serious questions' raised by plaintiffs.”

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