U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on Proposed Videogame Ban (the breakdown)

28 06 2011

The United States Supreme Court released their decision on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association Monday, regarding a proposed act by California to create a new regulation on videogames to minors.

The measure called for particularly violent games to be sold only to consumers 18 or older (or a minor with a parent present) and effectively issue civil fines of up to $1000 for anyone in violation of the act. The court ruled 7-2 against the act, with Justices Breyer and Thomas dissenting.

The opinions of the justices were compiled in a 92-page document, check out the notable bits and breakdown in the post after the jump.

Overall the court’s majority opinion (against the ban) asserted that the California proposed Act had no real evidence that video games actually caused problems in youths that could not be potentially found in other materials.

The proposed effect of the act was seen by the Justices as not only a means of restricting content to minors, but also infringing the rights of parents to allow their children to play such games as they saw fit.

The majority opinion  of the court goes on to state that “California’s argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence, but there is none” citing that things such as Grimm’s fairy tales, The Odyssey, and such other common children and teenage-focused school material has its own liberal splashing of gore and violence, but are not included in the proposed items for regulation.

The opinion also poked holes in California’s argument that video games were different from other materials due to the interactivity, which the assenting justices compared to the interactivity of choose-your-own-adventure books and argued that the only difference is the degree of interaction between the medium and the player/reader.

Perhaps most poignant is the majority opinion’s highlight of Justice Alito taking time to investigate videogames in which “the violence was astounding” and disgusted him, but he still argued against the California Act stating that “the precise danger posed by the California Act: that the ideas expressed by speech—whether it be violence, or gore, or racism—and not its objective effects, may be the real reason for governmental proscription.” Possibly suggesting that the proposed act was fueled by the content and not it’s apparent effects on youth; something in direct opposition of the First Amendment.

The court then referred that the ESRB rating system already in place for the protection of minors from violent or graphic videogames was a more than adequate measure in protecting youths without infringing speech.

Justice Thomas’ dissenting opinion (of which he was joined by Justice Breyer) proved especially interesting as Thomas believed that videogames had the ability to communicate to youths without the direct involvement of parents, bypassing any protective barriers and thus falling outside the scope of free speech.

Justice Breyer also dissented, saying that he did not find the California proposal vague when referencing what would be deemed inappropriate for minors. While he agreed that the amount of restriction California could impose on these games was limited, he continued with his dissent and explained that he believed the act would enable parents to better educate themselves and decide what games would be best for their children to play.

California has ultimately lost this battle and the ESRB has been applauded for its place in the gaming industry. The important decisions regarding what kinds of music, books, and videogames children are exposed to is again delegated to parents.

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