Supreme Court strikes down California video game law

The Supreme Court overturned a California law that sought to restrict the sale of violent video games to minors on First Amendment grounds, calling it "seriously overinclusive."
Written by Peter Cohen, Inactive

The Supreme Court today ruled 7-2 that a 2005 California law which would have banned selling violent video games to children went too far. It's the latest - and most high-profile - defeat for politicians seeking to restrict the sale of violent video games, and sets an important precedent that puts video games along with books and movies as a form of protected free speech.

Created by California state Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), the law sought to restrict the sale of certain kinds of violent video games to children without parental supervision. Retailers found in violation of the law would have been fined up to $1,000 per infraction. The law was enacted in 2005 but was never put into effect.

The majority of video game resellers in the United States - including major retailers like GameStop and Best Buy - support the use of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board's (ESRB) classification system, which rates games based on content and applies an age rating, which is featured on the video game box. It's a purely voluntary system modeled after the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings for movies.

As the plaintiff in the case, ultimately known as Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the Video Software Dealers Association - now the Electronic Merchants Association - argued successfully to lower courts that the law was too broad in its application and failed to pass muster with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and that an existing system was already in place which effectively restricted sales - the ESRB ratings system.

Other states have tried to put in place laws restricting the sales of violent video games to minors. In each case that's made it to federal court, the laws have been overturned on First Amendment grounds. This is the first such case to be ruled on by the Supreme Court, however.

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia called California's law "seriously overinclusive because it abridges the First Amendment rights of young people whose parents...think violent video games are a harmless pastime."

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, "The First Amendment does not disable government from helping parents make such a choice here — a choice not to have their children buy extremely violent, interactive games."

But more importantly, the court ruled in a precedent-setting decision that video games are entitled to the same protection as other forms of speech, such as books, plays and movies.

The Court also took a swipe at the argument that violent video games are harmful to children - a central argument of Senator Yee, the child psychologist turned politician who sponsored the law. In their ruling, the Supreme Court said studies showing studies linking violent video games and violent behavior in children "do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively."

Speaking on behalf of the Entertainment Consumer Association (ECA), Jennifer Mercurio, VP & General Counsel, said, "We had hoped that we would see this decision, and it's been a long time coming. That being said, there will probably be one or two legislators who attempt to test these new parameters, and the ECA will continue to fight for the rights of entertainment consumers."

In a statement issued late Monday morning, Senator Leland Yee blasted the Supreme Court's decision, saying it "put the interests of corporate America before the interests of our children."

"As a result of their decision, Wal-Mart and the video game industry will continue to make billions of dollars at the expense of our kids’ mental health and the safety of our community," said Yee, who takes credit with forcing "the video game industry to do a better job at appropriately rating these games."

(Editor's note: Updated with statement from Senator Yee)

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