Supreme Court Strikes Down Violent Video Game Ban

The Supreme Court on Monday struck down California's ban on the sale of violent video games to minors.

In a ruling closely watched by other states and the entertainment industry, the court in what amounts to a 7-2 ruling determined that California's 2005 violent video game restrictions violated free speech rights protected by the First Amendment.

“Even where the protection of children is the object, the constitutional limits on governmental action apply,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.

The much-anticipated ruling in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association is a defeat for current Gov. Jerry Brown. As attorney general, he had defended the statute signed by his gubernatorial predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the one-time star of the ultra-violent Terminator movie series.

The ruling continues a run of cases in which justices have struck down restrictions on electronically conveyed violent or salacious material.

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The ruling, moreover, could constrain at least 11 other states, including Florida, Mississippi and Texas, that explicitly sided with California's efforts to restrict the video games minors can buy.

The decision Monday took an unusually long time since the oral arguments were heard in early November.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas dissented separately.

“The interest that California advances in support of the statute is compelling,” Breyer wrote.

Thomas added that at the time the Constitution was drafted, the Founding Fathers believed firmly that “parents have authority over their children.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr and Justice Samuel Alito agreed that California's law, while “well intentioned (was) not framed with the precision the Constitution demands.” The two conservative justices, though, differed in their overall reasoning from other members of the majority.

California's law banned the sale of violent video games to customers under 18. Lawmakers defined, “violent” as activity involving the “killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.”

The law was modeled after obscenity statutes. It set a familiar-sounding threshold that a “reasonable person” must think the violent game was “patently offensive,” appealed to a minor's “deviant or morbid interest” and lacked serious scientific, literary or artistic merit.

Though passed six years ago, the California law has faced legal challenge the entire time and it has never been put into practice.

California lawmakers justified the restriction as a way to protect minors “physical and psychological welfare, as well as their ethical and moral development.” They cited games such as Postal 2, in which one illustrative scene includes the player hitting a woman in the face with a shovel.

“As she cries out and kneels down, the player hits her twice more with the shovel, this time decapitating her,” California's legal brief recounted. “The player then proceeds to hit the headless corpse several more times, each time propelling the headless corpse through the air while it continues to bleed.”

Entertainment industry advocates countered with their own game examples, such as Full Spectrum Warrior and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six.

Without venturing too far into a game-by-game review, the court in concluded California's law and its accompanying penalty of $1,000 per violation suppressed too much protected speech.

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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