Today, the United States Supreme Court finally issued its ruling in a case of great visibility to the video game industry, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. In a 7-2 decision, the United States Supreme Court upheld two lower federal court decisions, which found that a California law restricting minors from accessing violent video games was unconstitutional. Many industry folk are celebrating this decision as confirmation that video games are protected free speech under the First Amendment of United States Constitution.
The statute in question, CA Law AB 1179, which had been sponsored by California State Senator, Leland Yee, stated that, “[a] person may not sell or rent a video game that has been labeled as a violent video game to a minor.” Video game titles deemed too violent by the state were required to carry a warning sticker and a failure to comply with this law could carry a fine of up to $1,000 for retailers.
Before it could be enforced, the United States Northern District Court of California struck down the bill. Following an unsuccessful appeal, the case went to the United States Supreme Court. Seven of the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices decided to uphold the lower court decisions, finding that the California law violates the First Amendment rights afforded to all forms of media in the United States. Justice Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, explained:
“Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas-and even social messages-through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection. Under our Constitution, esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature . . . are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.”
However, the issue as to whether video games were a form of protected free speech was never really in question. Even the State of California conceded this point in its argument before the Court. The real debate was whether an exception could be carved out in the case of violent video games and minors as had been done with sexually explicit materials. Five of the justices believed that such an exception was not possible under the First Amendment.
While concurring with the majority opinion that the law was unconstitutional, Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts both felt that such a restriction could possibly be legal if the definition of “violent video game” had been more specific. These comments could lead to future attempts at passing similarly restrictive laws, but even if such a law does eventually pass constitutional muster, digital distribution and cloud-based gaming services could make it almost impossible to accomplish the goal of protecting children from such materials.
Do you believe that minors should not have access to violent video games from retailers? Or is any law curtailing the availability of video games an affront to our free speech rights?
To read the entire U.S. Supreme Court decision, click here.