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High Court Strikes Down 'Violent' Videogame Law

Posted On: 6/27/2011

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WASHINGTON -- In a major victory for the entertainment industry, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 27 struck down California's ban on sales and rentals of so-called "violent" videogames to minors, stating: "The Act does not comport with the First Amendment."

This verdict had the support of a strong majority in a 7-2 vote. The two dissenters were justices Thomas and Breyer. The ruling was issued shortly after 10 a.m. on the final day of the court's 2011 session and is now available under "Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association" at the court's website.

In its opinion, written for the majority by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court went on to say, "Videogames qualify for First Amendment protection. Like protected books, plays, and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium."

Citing an important precedent from an earlier case, Scalia's report said that the basic principles of freedom of speech do not vary with a new and different communication medium.

The majority also said that a legislature cannot create new categories of unprotected speech simply by weighing the value of a particular category against its social costs and then punishing it if it fails the test. "This country has no tradition of specially restricting children's access to depictions of violence," the justices stated. "California's claim that 'interactive' videogames present special problems, in that the player participates in the violent action on screen and determines its outcome, is unpersuasive."

The case of Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association stemmed from a California Assembly bill authored in 2005 by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). The proposed law was intended to ban the sale or rental of so-called "violent" videogames to players under age 18 and would have imposed a $1,000 fine per violation.

The law was intended to target consumer games played at home, but use of the word "rent" in the legal context meant that if the law had taken effect, law enforcement officials could potentially have applied the statute to coin-operated devices.

In the months leading up to the June 27 decision, entertainment industry members had voiced concern that if the Supreme Court had upheld California's law, it could have led to similar laws in 49 other states, creating a chilling effect for the videogame industry and perhaps for entertainment in general. | SEE STORY