Let the Kids Play Their Videogames!

By Kyu Hee Chu

Reviewed by Jennifer Williams

According to the Entertainment Software Association, more than $10 billion is spent in America each year on computer and video games.[1]  It seems like a huge number, but considering the number and variety of computer and videogames out there, it makes sense.  I myself have played many different computer and videogames since I was younger and continue to do so even now.  Among those many games, I have played videogames with what could be seen as violent content, but I never really thought that it could be considered “harmful” and I definitely did not know that states could pass laws to keep me from buying such games.

Well, actually the states can’t (at least not in the way that California tried to).  That’s what the Supreme Court said just last week when it struck down California’s anti-violent videogame law.

Let’s start out with the California law.  The law which was passed in 2005 prohibited the selling or renting of violent videogames to children under 18.  If it had not been for the Supreme Court’s decision just last week, selling or renting such “violent videogames” to children in California would’ve landed you up to $1,000 in fines.

In a 7-2 decision led by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court held that: a) videogames are protected by the First Amendment, and that in general, the government cannot restrict expression because of its content, with exceptions for obscenity, incitement, and fighting words, and b) since the California law places restrictions on the content of protected speech, it must satisfy the strict scrutiny test, but failed to do so.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Court’s decision.

First, in holding that videogames are protected by the First Amendment and that the government cannot restrict expression based on its content, the Court said that it had already previously held that legislatures cannot create new categories of unprotected speech based on its decisions that a certain type of speech is harmful.  The Court also explicitly stated that what is obscene refers only to sexual content, and that violence does not fall under the category of “obscenity.”

Second, in holding that California failed to meet the strict scrutiny standard, the Court said that California did not establish that there is a direct causal link between violent videogames and “harmful effects” on children, such as causing them to become more aggressive.  The Court further said that even if the research did show that playing videogames had a negative effect on children, it still did not show that it is any worse than other forms of media, such as television shows containing violence.  The Court also noted that the Entertainment Software Rating Board already has a system of assigning age-specific ratings to each videogame and that according to the Federal Trade Commission, this system has been more successful than either the movie or music industries in keeping children from being able to access “mature” material (in this case, videogames).[2]

Does this decision change much?  There have been six other states that have tried to place similar restrictions in their own states in the past, but the courts have struck them all down.  Now that the Supreme Court has passed a clear ruling in regards to violent videogames, it will be even harder for states to try to pass such laws.  If there were any doubts as to whether violent videogames were subject to the protection of the First Amendment, there are none now.


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