Supreme Court Backs Video Games’ 1st Amendment Rights

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The United States Supreme Court has struck down as unconstitutional a California law restricting the sale and rental of violent video games to minors, granting the medium First Amendment protections.

In its 7-2 decision, the court cited many of the same reasons cited by lower courts when striking down this and similar statutes: that video games contain expression that is protected as much as the best of literature; that California had not shown that video games were harmful to minors; that less restrictive means of achieving the state’s intended goal of protecting children from violent content exist, including the Entertainment Software Rating Board rating system; and that parents rather than the government should have primary responsibility for what games their children play.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer filed the dissenting opinion.

The Entertainment Software Association, a trade group representing the video game and computer gaming trade, applauded the ruling.

“This is a historic and complete win for the First Amendment and the creative freedom of artists and storytellers everywhere. Today, the Supreme Court affirmed what we have always known – that free speech protections apply every bit as much to video games as they do to other forms of creative expression like books, movies and music,” said Michael D. Gallagher, president and CEO of the ESA. “The court declared forcefully that content-based restrictions on games are unconstitutional; and that parents, not government bureaucrats, have the right to decide what is appropriate for their children.”

Because the California statute attempted to restrict free speech on the basis of content, the state had to prove a compelling government interest for the law and also that California’s proposed remedy was the narrowest possible way of furthering that interest. The U.S. Supreme Court said California failed in both respects.

In the decision, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, stated with regard to the validity of the scientific evidence put forth, “The State’s evidence is not compelling. California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Craig Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children. These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning). Instead, ‘[n]early all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.’”