Supreme Court strikes down controversial law, upholding gaming's First Amendment rights

It’s been a long road, but at last there is closure in the so-called “violent videogames” case that has been raging for years. In November of last year the EMA (a group representing gaming politically) took the State of California all the way to the Supreme Court for a 2005 law that made it illegal to sell certain games deemed too violent to children. After arguments months ago, the highest court in the USA gave its ruling of 7-2 in favor of the EMA, finding the law unconstitutional.

The argument was authored by Justice Scalia, a famously conservative judge, saying:

“The most basic principle--that government lacks the power to restrict expression because of its message, ideas, subject matter, or content--is subject to a few limited exceptions for historically unprotected speech, such as obscenity, incitement, and fighting words. But a legislature cannot create new categories of unprotected speech simply by weighing the value of a particular category against its social costs and then punishing it if it fails the test… California’s effort to regulate violent video games is the latest episode in a long series of failed attempts to censor violent entertainment for minors… Even where the protection of children is the object, the constitutional limits on governmental action apply.”

So there you go, videogames are protected speech. Or if you want to look at it from a different angle, activist judges are out to destroy today’s youth. Won’t somebody think of the children?!? Seeing as how this is a gaming site, it’s hard not to take sides and view this as a victory for the medium, one that gives gaming similar validity to music and film, even if some see it as only a battle between greedy publishers out to sell questionable games to whomever they can no matter the moral cost. But what do some of the biggest dogs in this fight think?

Above: The obligatory GTA screen that goes in any article about this subject

The ESA released an email celebrating the ruling, as this has been a very long battle for them. They said, “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… It is time for elected officials to stop wasting time and public funds seeking unconstitutional restrictions on video games. Instead, we invite them to join with us to raise awareness and use of the highly effective tools that already exist to help that parents choose games suitable for their children.” Somebody’s feeling pretty proud of themselves.

On the other end of the spectrum is the PTC, a group famous for denouncing the evils of the media, be they pro wrestling or videogames (games about wrestling must drive them crazy). Obviously they were less than thrilled by the ruling. From their press release: “Sadly, today’s ruling proves the United States Supreme Court heard the video game industry loud and clear, but turned a deaf ear to concerned parents. The Court has provided children with a Constitutionally-protected end-run on parental authority.” It continued, “The carefully-worded California statute would not have interfered in any way with the rights of the creators of adult games or the adults who wish to buy them; and in fact, it would not interfere with parents who wanted to purchase such a game for their children. Rather, the measure only would have prevented an unaccompanied minor child from buying or renting the product… We will continue to use all the resources within our power to call out unscrupulous retailers. If the federal courts won’t stand for parents, then we hope the court of public opinion will.”

Above: We bet the PTC really hates this video

Only a fool would think today ends the violent games debate, but this is certainly a feather in the cap of the gaming world, as it sets a legal precedent that will be a hurdle for any future legislation. What do you think of all this? Did the Supreme Court make the right choice? Will this be the last law about gaming on which millions of dollars must be spent to defeat? Are children’s morals destroyed beyond recognition?

Jun 27, 2011

About the Author
Henry Gilbert

A longtime GR editor that has written millions of words for the site, as well as hosted hundreds of podcasts and videos.