The Supreme Court issued a 7-2 ruling Monday, striking down a California law that would have banned selling “violent” video games to children.
The high court agreed with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Sacramento that said the law – which would have prohibited the sale or rental of violent games to anyone under 18 – was a violation of minors’ constitutional rights.
California believed it had an obligation to protect children from video games. The act covers games “in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being, if those acts are depicted” in such a fashion that “[a] reasonable person, considering the game as a whole, would find appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors,” that is “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community as to what is suitable for minors,” and that “causes the game, as a whole, to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority opinion, disagreed.
“California’s argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence, but there is none,” Justice Scalia wrote. “Certainly the books we give children to read – or read to them when they are younger – contain no shortage of gore.”
He continued, “Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers ‘till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.’ Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven.”
The high court said the current nationwide voluntary rating system is adequate for parents to judge the appropriateness of content in video games.
“This system does much to ensure that minors cannot purchase seriously violent games on their own, and that parents who care about the matter can readily evaluate the games their children bring home,” the decision said.
In their dissenting opinions, both Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Clarence Thomas expressed a belief that government should help parents in such circumstances.
“In my view, the First Amendment does not disable government from helping parents make such a choice here – a choice not to have their children buy extremely violent, interactive video games, which they more than reasonably fear pose only the risk of harm to those children,” Justice Breyer wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “The practices and beliefs of the founding generation establish that ‘the freedom of speech,’ as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.”