Jun 27, 2011

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California Video Game Bill Unconstitutional

California Video Game Bill Unconstitutional

After years of legal battles, culminating with an appearance before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), a decision as to the constitutionality of a California’s law that sought to make sales of violent video games to minors a crime has finally been reached.  In a seven to two ruling, the SCOTUS has determined (as had several previous state courts) that the bill is unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment and fails to pass strict scrutiny.

In a land-breaking ruling for video games’ status when compared to other media, the SCOTUS determined that video games are protected forms of speech:

“Video games qualify for First Amendment protection. Like protected books, plays, and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium. And ‘the basic principles of freedom of speech . . . do not vary’ with a new and different communication medium.”

Furthermore, the Court explained that the law was unconstitutional because it sought to restrict a category of speech (that is, violent content) from minors that has never been restricted before, and the legislature cannot do so (i.e., violent content has never been considered historically unprotected speech).

“[T]he State wishes to create a wholly new category of content-based regulation that is permissible only for speech directed at children. That is unprecedented and mistaken. This country has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence.”

More so, California’s argument that video games, due to their interactive nature, are particularly damaging, was “not persuasive,” according to the official Court opinion.  The Court also struck down the law due to its failure to pass “strict scrutiny,” which is a legal definition meant to constrain laws.  Basically, for a law to pass strict scrutiny, it must demonstrate that the government has a compelling interest to pass the law, and that it is specific.  The SCOTUS decided that California did not demonstrate that video games (especially when isolated from other forms of violent media) have negative effects on children; furthermore, the law is considered “over inclusive,” and therefore, does not pass strict scrutiny.  On these two levels, therefore, the Court was forced to rule against the law.

While I personally can understand why Yee may have wanted to present such a law, I’m relieved by the Court’s ruling, partially because it means that video games are now officially considered to be protected speech, and partially because I personally believe the government should not be involved in regulating media in this manner.  I do, however, hope that the ESRB considers working with Yee (and vice versa) to see how they can increase parents’ awareness of the ratings system for games, so parents can make better informed decisions about what they feel comfortable letting their children play in the same way they can decide what TV shows or movies they let their children watch.

What about you? Do you feel the Court made the right decision? The wrong one?  Let us know how you feel in the comments, and feel free to read the full opinion (including the supporting and dissenting opinions of each justice) in the source below.

[Source: SupremeCourt.gov]

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