Law Banning Video Games Violates Freedom of Speech

Caroline Cook

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law in 2005 banning the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, in addition to creating strict labeling requirements for video game manufacturers. Violators of this act could have been fined up to $1,000 per count. However, the law never took effect, and was challenged by video game manufacturers.

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rightly discarded the law on grounds that it violated minors’ constitutional right of free speech. As a result, the American video game industry was satisfied, but Schwarzenegger appealed his case to the Supreme Court.

Violent games include “killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.” Proponents of the law want to protect children from the effects that depict ultra violent actions, similar to the movies. Critics argue there is no connection between violent video games and psychological harm to our youth.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments for the case Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association this fall. However,  in addition to restricting artistic expression, this law lacks evidence holding violent video games responsible for the causation of violent behavior.

Video games in question include Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Postal 2, and Duke Nukem 3D, which emphasize the multitude of ways in which characters can injure their adversaries. The record also includes games based on popular novels or films. Most of these games contain extensive plot lines and historical events, and place characters in a position where they must make moral choices.

Although California has two compelling interests in favor of this law— preventing agressive and antisocial behavior, and preventing psychological harm to minors— the evidence the State provides fails to support the Legislature’s interest in preventing psychological harm.

Most of the research is based on correlation rather than evidence and is flawed in its methodology regarding the State’s interest. Basically, the current research doesn’t establish a connection between minors playing violent video games and actual psychological harm. Ironically, many of these studies advise against the inference of causation.

On another note, if the state of California bans the sale of certain video games to minors, not only will the video game industry suffer, but the creators of such games will lose their right to express themselves artistically. Authors and cinematographers express their sentiments and ideology through books and movies on a daily basis, and the public is free to interpret them in their own way. Video game creators undoubtedly believe that if Schwarzenegger’s law prevails, they would lose many consumers.

Even if people demonstrated a significant and compelling interest in banning violent video games, the State still carries the burden of showing that this Act would cater to the specific interest that they originally declared.

Until this case appears in front of the Supreme Court, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Act violates rights protected by the First Amendment because the State has not demonstrated a compelling interest, has not tailored the restriction to its alleged compelling interest, and there exists less-restrictive means that would further the State’s expressed interests.