Video Game Violence Lawsuit Could Set Precedent

The Supreme Court decides to take up a California law which would fine retailers $1,000 for selling violent video games to people less than 18 years old. The court's decision has the potential to redefine how First Amendment rights apply to various forms of media.

This week the Supreme Court announced it would hear a case to decide whether the state of California has the right to refuse the sale of violent video games to minors. The law in question was passed in 2005 and imposes a $1,000 fine on retailers found selling violent video games to people less than 18 years of age.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco found the law to be in breach of the First Amendment, which protects free speech. The Supreme Court's review has the potential to redefine how the First Amendment protects violent images, as opposed to other media such as violent books, music or other forms of art. The Court plans to hear the case, Schwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers, in the fall.

The history of legislating violent video games has been a perpetually controversial one; federal judges have already blocked similar laws in Louisiana, Minnesota and Michigan. In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit declared the Illinois law unconstitutional, claiming the law was now "sufficiently narrowly tailored," despite pressure from parents groups and social organizations that claim violent video games lead to aggressive, anti-social behavior. Numerous studies, including a report from the U.S. Surgeon General in 2001, found "media effects" rank far below other causes of violence in teenagers and young adults. In reference to the California law, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, the Entertainment Software Association and the Video Software Dealers Association took the state to court and successfully blocked the law from being enforced.

The sales of Mature- and Adult Only-rated games to minors has been an issue of much concern to parent groups and public officials, and bills have been submitted to government agencies, including the Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act introduced to the US House of Representatives. The proposed legislation would have required an ID check for Mature and Adults Only-rated game purchases, but neither bill was passed into law. Other proposed bills in states around the country were stopped because of First Amendment violations.

California Sen. Leland Yee, who authored the original California bill, released a short audio statement saying he was "thrilled" with the Supreme Court's decision, calling it a "balanced bill" that doesn't "trample" First Amendment rights while protecting minors. Although no law mandates ID checking for games with adult content, a 2008 secret shopper survey done by the Federal Trade Commission shows that video game retailers have voluntarily increased ID verification for M- and AO-rated games, and sales of those games to underage potential buyers have been reduced from 83 percent in 2000 to only 20 percent in 2008.