The debate about how harmful the violence portrayed in some video games might be to children has raged since just about the earliest days of the medium. It’s responsible for the formation of the ESRB and the E/T/M ratings system that’s on most pieces of interactive entertainment software. Now, that debate’s moving to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Five years ago, California State Senator Leland Yee–then a State Assemblyman– wrote a bill prohibiting the sale or rental of games that portray “killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being” to people younger than 18 years old. Governor Schwarznegger signed that bill into law on October 7th, 2005. That law was struck when U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte down ruled it unconstitutional less than two years later, saying it violated the First Amendment’s provisions for free speech. Whyte’s ruling led to a petition to SCOTUS, who will now hear arguments for and against potentially reinstating the law this fall.
In addition to the legal and business ramifications of what the Supreme Court’s decision might be, what also hangs in the balance is the idea that video games are a protected form of free speech. This is an important cultural sticking point, because part of what informs and will be informed by the ruling will be whether video games constitute a form of endeavor that should be protected by the First Amendment. In a statement issued by the Entertainment Software Association, Michael D. Gallagher, president and CEO of the industry organization, refers to what’s potentially at stake:
“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 poll recently conducted by KRC Research found that 78 percent believe video games should be afforded First Amendment protection. 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.”