The Supreme Court of the United States has decided to review a controversial California law which would restrict the sale of videogames to minors, a case which could go a long way toward deciding whether videogames are entitled to the same First Amendment protections as other creative works.
In 2005, the state of California enacted a law, sponsored by noted videogame critic Leland Yee, that would impose fines on retailers who sell violent games to minors. The Entertainment Software Association challenged the law on constitutional grounds and won, forcing it to be overturned and squeezing more than $280,000 in legal fees out of the state in the process. But California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – yes, that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man who turned cartoon violence into an art form in movies like Commando, Predator and Total Recall, to name but a few – declared that in spite of the numerous precedents set by previous cases, the state would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court announced today that it would review the law and determine once and for all whether it violates the constitution. The decision will have wide-ranging implications: A ruling against California will essentially cement the First Amendment rights of videogames, whereas a decision in favor throws the door open to future restrictions and similar laws in other states.
“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,” Entertainment Software Association President Michael Gallagher said in a statement.
“As the Court recognized last week in the U.S. 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’,” he continued. “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.”
In the Stevens case, the Supreme Court ruled that a federal law criminalizing the creation, sale or possession of “certain depictions of animal cruelty” was “substantially overbroad, and therefore invalid under the First Amendment.” The Court noted that “the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits,” a position which would seem to have as much relevance to videogames as it does to dogfighting videos.
“A poll recently conducted by KRC Research found that 78 percent believe video games should be afforded First Amendment protection,” Gallagher said. “We look forward to presenting our arguments in the Supreme Court of the United States and vigorously defending the works of our industry’s creators, storytellers and innovators.”