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U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Ban on Violent Video Games for Children

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IF 12: CultivateThe U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that California cannot make it a crime to sell violent video games to children aged 18 and younger, a ruling that could profoundly affect the $25 billion video game industry. This was the first time the Supreme Court has weighed in on video games in any fashion.

In the 7-2 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia said California’s law would violate First Amendment free-speech rights and that the existing nationwide, industry-imposed, voluntary rating system is an adequate way for parents to judge the appropriateness of video game content.

In an unusual coalition, his majority opinion had the support of Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Clarence Thomas and the Stephen Breyer, traditionally members of the Court’s left and right wings, were the dissenters.

California lawmakers passed the 2005 measure to help parents keep violent video games away from children, citing studies showing a connection between minors who play the games and later violent activities. But two federal courts had invalidated the law.

Joan Biskupic, writing in USA Today, offers the following quotes:

In his dissent, Breyer wrote: ‘What sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her? What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman — bound, gagged, tortured, and killed — is also topless?’

Scalia said, ‘Our cases make clear that obscenity covers only depictions of sexual conduct, and we have previously rejected attempts to shoehorn violence into that category.’

California’s then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — who previously made his name as an actor playing characters engaged in violent acts in such movies as “Terminator,” and who signed the law in 2005 — had applauded the Supreme Court’s decision to intervene. He said, “We have a responsibility to our kids and our communities to protect against the effects of games that depict ultraviolent actions, just as we already do with movies.”

CNN’s Supreme Court producer Bill Mears, writes:

The legislation was designed to strengthen the current industry-controlled rating system, and would have placed an outright ban on the sale or rental to those under 18 of games deemed excessively ‘violent.’ As defined by California, such interactive games are those in which the player is given the choice of ‘killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being’ in offensive ways. It also defined such games as those that would ‘appeal to a deviant or morbid interest of children and are patently offensive to prevailing community standards.’

Out of the 30 sets of “friend of the court” briefs filed in the case by outside groups, 26 of them were from from advocates siding with the video industry and representing publishers, filmmakers, cable companies, and others, who said that the California law would limit speech rights and possibly affect what is shown in films or other media. More than 46 million American households have at least one video game system, with the industry bringing in at least $18 billion in 2010.

Read the full text of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in PDF.

Image by n.W.s (Nick Stirling), used under its Creative Commons license.


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