According to The Associated Press, the nation’s highest court said in a 7-2 ruling that the law, prohibiting the sale or rental of violent games to anyone younger than 18, was unconstitutional.
“No doubt a state possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm,” said Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion. “But that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.”
Naturally, the gaming industry celebrated the ruling. Michael D. Gallagher, said president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, which represents the U.S. computer and video game industry, said in a statement:
“This is a historic and complete win for the First Amendment and the creative freedom of artists and storytellers everywhere. Today, the Supreme Court affirmed what we have always known – that free speech protections apply every bit as much to video games as they do to other forms of creative expression like books, movies and music. The Court declared forcefully that content-based restrictions on games are unconstitutional; and that parents, not government bureaucrats, have the right to decide what is appropriate for their children.”
California’s law, passed in 2005, would have fined retailers up to $1,000 for each instance in which they sell such titles to anyone younger than 18 and created strict labeling requirements for game manufacturers.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it unconstitutional on free speech grounds. The creators and supporters of the rejected law cited studies linking violent content in games to aggression, antisocial behavior and desensitization to violence. The games industry attacked it as a First Amendment issue.
Former Marvel Comics chairman Stan Lee even weighed in, urging gamers to fight a “national hysteria” he compared to that of the 1950s, when comic books were attacked as a dangerous influence on young minds. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing the law is unconstitutional — arguments that were cited in the Court’s majority decision:
Many in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s blamed comic books for fostering a “preoccupation with violence and horror” among the young, leading to a rising juvenile crime rate. See Note, Regulation of Comic Books, 68 Harv. L. Rev. 489, 490 (1955). But efforts to convince Congress to restrict comic books failed. Brief for Comic Book Legal Defense Fund as Amicus Curiae 11–15.5 And, of course, after comic books came television and music lyrics.
When the high court heard arguments in the fall, there was sympathy for the law, but several justices said it faced a high constitutional hurdle before it could take effect. As a body, they’ve been reluctant to make exceptions to the First Amendment, even killing a ban on explicit videos that showed the deaths of animals last year.
Upholding California’s law would likely have resulted in other states following in their footsteps. But tighter regulation of game sales isn’t really what our economy needs right now — it could have had the effect of stifling the recovery from recession and result in a chilling effect against innovation and creativity just when they’re needed most. The nation’s highest court this year has become known for siding with large corporations against the concerned individuals and classes that would dare to challenge them — something that worked in the video games industry’s favor here.
The wider effect of today’s ruling is clear: Video games are constitutionally protected freedom of expression.
The Supreme Court decision can be found here.