NEWS - Monday, April 26, 2010

Supreme Court Reviews California Videogame Law

The United States Supreme Court announced (via The New York Times) today that it will review a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to throw out a California law that would ban the sale of violent videogames to anyone under the age of 18.
The law, which was signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 but never went into effect due to being blocked by a judge on January 1, 2006, was struck down by a U.S. District Court after the state of California was sued by the industry over claims that the law was unconstitutional. When appealed by the state of California, the Circuit Court agreed with the previous assessment, leading to California appealing that decision once again, thereby bringing it to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court could have denied the writ of certiorari so that the previous decision would have stood without further review, but there is now the possibility that the Supreme Court will rule that the law is constitutional.

The California law, in addition to banning the sale or rental of violent videogames to anyone under the age of 18, would fine retailers up to $1,000 for each violation and require videogames containing violence to be labeled as such. But the definition of a violent videogame isn’t especially clear, and opponents of the law point to the fact that the ESRB already exists and labels videogames to inform parents of any questionable content contained within a game.

Just last week, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that would ban videos showing animal cruelty, a victory for those in favor of free speech. That ruling would suggest to some that the Supreme Court would also rule against the California law when it comes up for review (which won’t be until the next term, beginning on October 4), but there is an added layer of complexity as the law attempts to protect minors, similar to laws which prevent the sale of pornography to minors.

The Entertainment Software Association, as you’d expect, is firmly against the law. ESA president and CEO Michael Gallagher said in a statement, "Courts throughout the country have ruled consistently that content-based regulation of computer and video games is unconstitutional. Research shows that the public agrees, video games should be provided the same protections as books, movies and music.

"As the Court recognized last week in the US v. Stevens case, the First Amendment protects all speech other than just a few ’historic and traditional categories’ that are ’well-defined and narrowly limited.’ We are hopeful that the Court will reject California’s invitation to break from these settled principles by treating depictions of violence, especially those in creative works, as unprotected by the First Amendment."

A major part of lawmakers’ argument in favor of the law centers around studies that attempt to link aggressive and anti-social behavior, as well as a desensitization to violence, in children to violent videogames. In the Circuit Court ruling against the law, Judge Consuelo Callahan said, "None of the research establishes or suggests a causal link between minors playing violent video games and actual psychological or neurological harm, and inferences to that effect would not be reasonable." He also said there are other, less restrictive ways to protect children from "unquestionable violent" games.

Expect to hear much more on what will be an extremely significant Supreme Court ruling later this year.



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