I’m not sure why legislators in California think they need to take on the role of parents to the state’s millions of children.
In November 2010, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned McDonald’s Happy Meals in order to force the city’s parents to make healthier food choices for their children. In that same month the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association regarding a new California law that restricts the sale or rental of violent video games to minors.
While San Francisco children still have to sneak over the bridge to get a good hamburger and plastic toy, on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court put the kibosh on the state restricting video game sales.
In a 7-2 decision, the Court ruled that California’s new video game law violated the First Amendment. “Video games qualify for First Amendment protection. Like protected books, plays, and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium. And ‘the basic principles of freedom of speech . . . do not vary’ with a new and different communication medium,” reads the Court’s decision.
“The most basic principle—that government lacks the power to restrict expression because of its message, ideas, subject matter, or content, Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 535 U. S. 564, 573—is subject to a few limited exceptions for historically unprotected speech, such as obscenity, incitement, and fighting words. But 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.”
Basically, the Court told California that it cannot ban video games based on their “shock” value, they have to fit the obscenity exception to the First Amendment, which means sexual content. Apparently here in America we’re okay with our children hearing stories of death and dismemberment, but a naked body is something to fear. (Sigmund Freud might have something to say about that.) The Court backs up their position with America’s historical and continuing acceptance of violent content in children’s literature and television programming.
The Court cites “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and the violence that permeates each and every cherished children’s story. Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves, and Hansel and Gretel are baked to death in an oven by a witch. The Court also brings up a high school reading list standard “The Odyssey of Homer” and its tales grinding out the eye of the Cyclops with a heated stake.
The Court also responded to the state’s argument that video games are a larger threat to children based on their interactivity factor.
Judge Posner observed that all literature is interactive and choose-your-own-adventure tales have been around for decades. And as for California’s psychological research that purports to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children:
“Even taking for granted Dr. Anderson’s conclusions that violent video games produce some effect on children’s feelings of aggression, those effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media. In his testimony in a similar lawsuit, Dr. Anderson admitted that the ‘effect sizes’ of children’s exposure to violent video games are ‘about the same’ as that produced by their exposure to violence on television. And he admits that the same effects have been found when children watch cartoons starring Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner, or when they play video games like Sonic the Hedgehog that are rated ‘E’ (appropriate for all ages), or even when they ‘vie[w] a picture of a gun,’” reads the court’s decision.
The Court goes on to say that since “California declined to restrict other media, such as Saturday morning cartoons, its video-game regulation is wildly under inclusive, raising serious doubts about whether the state is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.” Gotcha!
I enthusiastically recommend those who have an hour to spare read the entire decision by the Supreme Court at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/08-1448.pdf. It is very interesting and renews my faith that at least a few individuals in our federal government system have some common sense.
While I am rejoicing that the First Amendment was upheld in this decision, I am not about to go out and buy “Grand Theft Auto III” for my school-aged nephews. Nor do I support the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. I think every video game retailer should consistently enforce the video game industry’s voluntary rating system designed to inform consumers about the content of games. The system, implemented by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), assigns age-specific ratings to each video game submitted: EC (Early Childhood); E (Everyone); E10+ (Everyone 10 and older); T (Teens); M (17 and older); and AO (Adults Only—18 and older).
I also think parents should enable the parental controls that come standard on every gaming console, computer and television. Parents should make it their business to know what video games their children are playing, and collaborate with their children’s friends’ parents on what each child is playing.
This is the job of parents — not the state.
To contact Kristina Hacker, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2004.