Movie Mom

Movie Mom

Supreme Court to Rule on Limiting Sales of Violent Games to Kids

posted by Nell Minow

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.

  • jestrfyl

    The funny (not “HaHa”, but “wyrrrrd”) thing is a lot of these games are bought by parents for their kids. The games are not cheap so it is common for parents to either buy or be involved in the purchase of these games. Limiting purchases based on content is not simply a Bandaid, it is a cheap cheesy one that comes off when it gets wet. Once again, parental involvement and education are the two factors that will more directly influence game buying choices.
    This is but another magic-pill solution to a problem that will require actual involvement and interaction. But kids are scary (you don’t believe me? Try recruiting teachers for a 7-8 grade Sunday School class and you will learn who the scariest people in a church really are)but they really do respond to people who talk WITH them and not impose rules over them. I am fairly certain than NONE of the legislators has spoken with an 11-18 year old about this. Rules are easier to make than conversation.

  • Nell Minow

    Bless you for your wise counsel, jestrfyl. I agree entirely and could not have said it as well. But I think that just as we ask bartenders to be responsible in what they sell, we should with other products that may be harmful to those who are not old enough to have mature judgment.

  • Dave

    Nell, your bartender example doesn’t really make much sense. Sure, we don’t allow alcohol to be sold to children, but alcohol is not a form of free speech. The case at hand is a First Amendment case, and alcohol has nothing to do with the First Amendment.
    Secondly, the bill in question regulates violence ONLY in video games. Not movies, books, magazines, etc. just games. That would be like (using your bartender example) prohibiting bartenders from selling Bud Light to children, while allowing them to sell Miller Lite to them. Bud Light, Miller Lite, Beck’s, Coor’s etc. it shouldn’t matter which kind. Likewise, if the state of California were serious about protecting kids from violence, they shouldn’t attack only video games, when numerous movies are FAR more violent and sexually explicit than any video game that is currently on the market.
    But then again, this is California, home of Hollywood. Hollywood is to California what apple pie is to America. Not to mention, the governor of that state is the “Terminator”, remember?
    This bill is a political bill designed to make lawmakers look good in front of voters, without angering an industry (Hollywood) that has meant a lot to the state of California. This has nothing to do with protecting kids.
    A few weeks ago, a movie called “Kick Ass” opened in theaters. In this film, an 11 year old girl commits atrocious acts of violence and uses profanity. Where was the California legislature then?

  • Nell Minow

    Good points, Dave. I have discussed my concerns about “Kick-Ass” elsewhere on the site. Let’s put bartenders aside, then. I agree that the law should address harmful material, regardless of the format. Pornographic books and magazines are speech and are subject to constitutionally permissible restrictions on their sale based on the age of the purchaser. There are also restrictions on the sale of R-rated DVDs to underage kids and of course under-17-year-olds are not permitted to buy tickets for R-rated films without a parent or guardian. Some library systems have restrictions on what is available online to underage patrons. While those rules are not always effective or enforced, they do apply to speech and its availability to children.
    The legal system has always recognized that children require special protection because they cannot make appropriate decisions for themselves. It is the responsibility of the parents to protect their children but they should be able to rely on the help of appropriate laws and ordinances.
    What are you proposing? Do you think that retailers should have no restrictions whatsoever on what they sell to kids?

  • Your Name

    There are no restrictions by law on R rated movies. This is a common misconception. The ratings on movies and their enforcement is completely voluntary. Kids are able to purchase R rated movies and movie theater tickets far more often then they are able to purchase video games – also, movies are a lot less expensive than movies, making it easier for kids to buy them over video games. There is no law, not now, nor has there ever been one that restricts childrens’ access to R rated movies. Stores also carry movies that are “unrated”, which more than likely contain content that would have caused the movie to be given an NC-17 rating. No enforcements by law on unrated movies in retail stores. Likewise, the library systems that have restrictions are also voluntary. Some libraries have no restrictions.
    This is why I do not support this bill either. The legislature should either add all violent media forms, not just games, or just drop support of the bill.

  • Vince

    I don’t usually play M rated games (I prefer Super Mario personally), but I have friends who do. I think that if all the court wants to do is restrict the sale of the games, that’s reasonable. However, I read (it might have been in USA Today) that California is going to argue that violent videogames should be included in the obscenity laws. That is most certainly not reasonable and if they succedded in arguing that, it would only be the beginning of censorship (inevitably there would be people trying to reinstate the Hayes Code). This whole mess makes me want to buy a bunch of M rated games just for spite.

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