Is there a First Amendment right to sell violent video games to children and teenagers?
The California legislature said no. They enacted a law imposing a fine of up to $1000 on retailers who sell violent games to anyone under age 18. Games like the best-selling Grand Theft Auto contain explicit brutal violence and sex. The player directs his character to murder other characters with Uzis and have sex with prostitutes. The Parents Television Council reports:
The beatings are intense and the number of weapons available is staggering. One can use a baseball bat, screwdriver, machete, or even a chainsaw to attack pedestrians to get small amounts of cash. As you attack and beat innocents, blood sprays the concrete. If you wound your victim and they try to run, you can chase them by following the blood trail. You can also get quick money by hitting people with your car.
These games are rated for mature audiences by the industry’s ratings board, but that is not meaningful if a child or young teen can buy it in the store.
The federal appeals court threw out the law as invalid. They said that video games are protected by the same First Amendment rights as books and any attempt to restrict their sale was unconstitutional. They said there was no proof that these games were harmful to children.
This is a collision of two principles — our commitment to freedom of expression and our commitment to protecting children.
This week, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to consider the case. The New York Times reports that
Michael D. Gallagher, the president of the Entertainment Software Association, said First Amendment protections should apply to video games just as they do to books, films and music. Industry self-regulation is working, he said, and it is harder for minors to buy M-rated games than it is to buy R-rated DVDs.
This is a tough challenge for the Court. And it is an even tougher one for parents.