Supreme Court Strikes Down California Law Banning Violent Video Games To Minors

In a long-awaited decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court sent a clear message to state governments looking to regulate the sale of violent video games to minors: Treat video games like movies, books, music, and any other artistic medium.

The Supreme Court struck down California's law banning the rental or sale of violent video games to children under the age of 18 by a decisive 7-2 margin.

In doing so, the court's justices emphasized in its decision the primacy of the First Amendment and that "basic principals of free speech" shouldn't be restricted without a "compelling government interest." 

In defending the law, the government tried to point to psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and the harmful effects on children, but the Supreme Court found the evidence to be inconclusive, and that any demonstrated effects were "small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media."

As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that standards applied to other media should also be applicable in this situation:

"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."

The decision is a victory for the video game industry in its many years of efforts to be treated equally to other entertainment businesses.

"We are gratified that our position that the law violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression has been vindicated and there now can be no argument whether video games are entitled to the same protection as books, movies, music, and other expressive entertainment," said Bo Andersen, President & CEO, Entertainment Merchants Association

The Supreme Court decision is also a triumph for entertainers at large.

In the decision, the Supreme Court notes that California attempted to craft an entirely new category of unprotected speech -- content aimed at children. The justices reject this idea and say that lawmakers must only regulate speech using the same kinds of content-neutral regulation standards used in the past.

“The motion picture industry is no stranger to governments’ incursion on freedom of expression," said Chris Dodd, Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America. "From the very inception of the movie industry, attempts to restrict speech have threatened the creativity of American movie-makers. We applaud the Supreme Court for recognizing the far-reaching First-Amendment implications posed by the California law."

The decision wasn't unanimous. Justices Thomas and Breyer dissented. In their view,  "the practices and beliefs of the founding generation establish that 'the freedom of speech,' as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors' parents or guardians."

Some groups which have supported laws like California's statute pledged to continue working on the issue despite the Supreme Court ruling to ensure minors are adequately protected.

"Today’s decision is a disappointing one for parents, educators, and all who care about kids," says Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer. "But the fight is far from over. Advocates for kids and families can work within the scope of this ruling to protect the best interests of kids...We respectfully disagree with the Court when it comes to their analysis of the First Amendment rights of children and families -- this is a sanity issue, not a censorship issue. If parents decide a violent game is okay for their kid, that’s one thing, but millions of kids are not able to judge the impact of ultra-violence on their own"

Other groups said the decision would have a negative impact.

"This ruling replaces the authority of parents with the economic interests of the video game industry," said Parents Television Council president Tim Winter. "With no fear of any consequence for violating the video game industry’s own age restriction guidelines, retailers can now openly, brazenly sell games with unspeakable violence and adult content even to the youngest of children.”    


Twitter: @eriqgardner