Supreme Court Grants Video Games First Amendment Protection
The Supreme Court of the United States set precedence by affirming that video games are afforded full protection under the First Amendment to the Constitution as free speech. The court ruled that “basic principles of free speech do not vary with a different communication medium.” The decision is the latest and most important victory for the relatively young video game industry which has been subject to countless failed lawsuits, litigation and legislation in many different states over adult oriented content.
The California law brought before the Supreme Court, Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, was enacted in 2005 and bans the sale of violent video games to minors without parental supervision. The law was authored by California Senator Leland Yee, a former child psychologist, and championed by, then Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the lower courts by striking the law unconstitutional in a 7-2 decision.
The dramatic media coverage of incidents like the Columbine High School massacre and the Virginia Tech shootings have raised public concerns of a potential connection between video games and violent actions, especially in youths. Political activists like disbarred Florida attorney Jack Thompson contend that minors who play video games are influenced by the violence, altering their behavior. Thompson even went so far as to call games, “murder simulators.”
Most studies attempting to find a definitive link between violence in video games and associated types of behavioral problems have been insubstantial and tenuous. Even studies which find proof of a relationship must point out that the correlation does not imply causation. Media Scholar Henry Jenkins asserts that, “It’s true that young offenders who have committed school shootings in America have also been game players. But young people in general are more likely to be gamers -90 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls play. The overwhelming majority of kids who play do NOT commit antisocial acts.”
More telling than ineffective studies is the fact that according to the U.S. Department of Justice, violent crime rates have been dramatically declining for over two decades, even as video games have become more prevalent and realistic.
In response to mounting pressure from the public and rampant, expensive attempts at legislation, the gaming industry created the Entertainment Software Rating Board. The ESRB rates games on a scale similar to the Motion Picture Association of America’s movie ratings. Both ratings are voluntary, widely used and enforced by their respective industries. Despite common misconceptions, it is not against the law for a child to watch an “R” rated movie. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission issued a 2011 report stating that the controls put in place by the ESRB were more effective than any other media industry.
In the end, the decision of the Court does not condone the sale of violent video games to children. It simply grants video games the same protection afforded to other forms of speech like movies, music and literature. It shifts the responsibilities and choices of what video games children are allowed to play away from the government, and back to where it belongs; with the parents.