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Violent Games Fight Heats Up Nationally

5 Jun, 2003 By: Joan Villa

Trade groups challenging a Washington state statute that would allow a $500 fine for selling or renting certain violent video games to minors say their arguments have been bolstered by a victory last week against a similar ordinance in St. Louis County.

The Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) filed suit Thursday in U.S District Court of Seattle to block the law's July 27 implementation, arguing that it is unconstitutional and violates First Amendment rights to free speech.

“While we share the state's objective to restrict the ability of children to purchase games that might not be appropriate for them, we passionately oppose efforts to achieve this goal by running roughshod over the constitutional rights of video game publishers, developers and retailers to make and sell games that depict images some find objectionable,” said IDSA president Douglas Lowenstein. “We believe a combination of voluntary enforcement at retail and consumer education about video game ratings is vastly preferable.”

The Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) and Hollywood Video are among the five co-plaintiffs in the suit, which argues that the Washington statute improperly restricts specific violence — in this case the killing of law enforcement figures — within games otherwise protected as free speech. For example, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City could fall under the statute's restrictions while other violent acts would not.

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit overturned a lower court in deciding that St. Louis County did not have “unbridled license” to regulate the games minors can play. That ordinance, enacted in 2000, would have made it illegal for retailers to sell or rent violent video games to minors under age 17.

“There is no justification for disqualifying video games as speech simply because they are constructed to be interactive,” the court asserted in its nine-page ruling.

The appellate court further held that since video games are protected as free speech, “government cannot silence protected speech by wrapping itself in the cloak of parental authority.” The court also noted that arguments claiming violent video games are harmful to minors are “unsupported in the record.”

VSDA president Bo Andersen called the ruling “a milestone” in First Amendment law.

“The court recognized that the appropriate response to concerns about violence in entertainment is parental control, not government censorship,” he said.

The court's decision, added Lowenstein, is “a total and unambiguous affirmation of our position that video games have the same constitutional status as a painting, a film or a book.” He said the ruling bolsters IDSA's case against the Washington statute, and predicted a victory in that lawsuit as well.

VSDA's Andersen emphasized that although the law is on the side of retailers, content providers and consumers in supporting freedom of expression, the industry still has an obligation to help parents control access to inappropriate material through voluntary enforcement of ratings systems currently in place for both movies and games.

The bill's sponsor, Washington Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, told VSM that she backed the statute as a “last resort” after five years of trying to get video retailers to enforce ratings in Seattle's Puget Sound area.

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