Thursday, November 18, 2010

Are violent video games protected speech?

This is the question the parties in Schwarzenneger v. Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA) argued before the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) on November 2nd. The case emanated from a law passed by the State of California which bans the sale of ultra-violent video games to minors, arguing that such forms of entertainment have detrimental effects on children.
The 2005 law, however, failed to take effect after lower courts in California blocked its implementation citing, chiefly, violation of children's First Amendment right. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits laws infringing on free speech.

During the November 2nd oral argument before the SCOTUS, while the justices appear to be sympathetic with the law's objectives, most of their questions seem to point to a direction where the court will not carve out an exception to the First Amendment - at least for depiction of violence. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and staunch court conservative Antonin Scalia asked the proponents of the law on where regulation would stop if the court were to allow it. Ginsburg asked whether movies, which clearly portray violence, and comics would be next. Scalia, on the other hand, ever the originalist (the view of interpreting the constitution according to the framers' intent), argued that the founding fathers never intended to exclude portrayals of violence from the coverage of free speech.

One court observer, however, notes that sometimes the justices vigorously question the position of the party in whose favor they would later on rule, if only to test arguments that could change their minds. So the oral argument is not really a good indicator of which direction the court will go on this issue. Legal analysts would focus more on the merits of the case.

There is no question that video games constitute speech, but the question is do they fall within the ambit of protected speech? If not then the California law will be declared unconstitutional. The law being a content-based regulation (the content of the speech itself - portrayal of violence in the games - is being sought to be regulated), the SCOTUS will likely apply the strict scrutiny standard, which is a very difficult standard to pass. Under this standard, the two tests to apply if the law were to pass constitutional muster are: (1) is there a compelling or overriding governmental interest in passing the law? (2) is the law "narrowly tailored" in accomplishing that interest?

Applying these two tests to the video games law, the State of California must present conclusive evidence that ultra-violent video games have adverse psychological effects on children. But that is only half the test. The proponent must also show that there are no least restrictive means of regulating speech, meaning the manner the law seeks to regulate the targeted speech must be the least restrictive, hence "narrowly tailored." To this, the entertainment industry is arguing that the current rating system of video games by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), such as the "M" (mature) rating for violent games, is the least restrictive and should be sufficient.

This is the biggest case yet involving the video games industry. It is probably one of the reasons why among thousands of cases that regularly land on the doorsteps of the SCOTUS, the high court decided to allow this petition. If the SCOTUS upholds the law, minors would still be able to buy violent video games through an adult, much like in the case of alcohol and tobacco. But First Amendment advocates fear such ruling would open the floodgates for regulation of other media.

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