Violent Video Games: Free Speech or Child's Play?

By JESSE J. HOLLAND
|  Monday, Apr 26, 2010  |  Updated 11:41 AM PDT
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Violent Video Games: Free Speech or Child's Play?

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BERLIN - MARCH 23: A shopper carries off a Sony Playstation 3 game console shortly after midnight at at a Saturn electronics store in the morning of March 23, 2007 in Berlin, Germany. Playstations 3 went on sale across Europe at exactly one minute after midnight in the morning of March 23. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

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The Supreme Court, wading into a thicket of free-speech and children's rights issues, agreed Monday to decide whether California can ban the sale or rental of violent video games to minors.

The court will review a federal court's decision to throw out California's ban. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Sacramento said the law violated minors' constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments.

California's law would have prohibited the sale or rental of violent games to anyone under 18. It also would have created strict labeling requirements for video game manufacturers. Retailers who violated the act would have been fined up to $1,000 for each violation.

The law never took effect, and was challenged shortly after it was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A U.S. District Court blocked it after the industry sued the state, citing constitutional concerns.

Opponents of the law note that video games already are labeled with a rating system that lets parents decide what games their children can purchase and play. They also argue that the video games are protected forms of expression under the First Amendment.

The high court's action Monday was surprising, given that justices just last week voted 8-1 to strike down a federal law that banned videos showing animal cruelty. The California case poses similar free speech concerns, although the state law is aimed at protecting children, raising an additional issue that affect the high court's consideration.
     
California lawmakers approved the law, in part, by relying on several studies suggesting violent games can be linked to aggression, anti-social behavior and desensitization to violence in children. But federal judges have dismissed that research.

"None of the research establishes or suggests a causal link between minors playing violent video games and actual psychological or neurological harm, and inferences to that effect would not be reasonable," Judge Consuelo Callahan said in the 9th Circuit ruling.

Callahan also said there were less restrictive ways to protect children from "unquestionably violent" video games.

The supporters of the law say the same legal justifications for banning minors from accessing pornography can be applied to violent video games. They point to recent Federal Trade Commission studies suggesting that the video game industry's rating system was not effective in blocking minors from purchasing M-rated, or mature-rated games designed for adults.

But courts in other states have struck down similar laws.

The video game industry also argues that approval of California's video game restrictions could open the door for states to limit minors' access to other material under the guise of protecting children. "The state, in essence, asks us to create a new category of nonprotected material based on its depiction of violence," Callahan wrote in the 30-page ruling.

The court will hear arguments in this case in the fall.

The case is Schwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers Association, 08-1448.
 

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