Monday, June 27, 2011

Supreme Court delivers a headshot to CA video game ban

Hasta la vista, video game ban.

WASHINGTON DC -- In a 7-2 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that California's ban on sales of violent video games to minors was unconstitutional, as it violated the First Amendment free expression rights of video game developers. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, (which included Kennedy and the three female members of the Court, Ginsberg, Sotomayer, and Kagan) said that video games are really no different from any other material, so without putting restrictions on books, films, tv, and radio, California had placed an unfair burden on the industry.

In question was a ban on the sale of video games rated M to children under the age of 18. Far from reducing minors' access to violent or prurient material (any parent dumb enough to let their kid play these games is equally irresponsible to buy it for them because they asked for/whined for it), it placed an extra layer of bureaucracy and hassle for anyone over the age of 18 to buy a video game.

As a personal example, I remember when my brother came to visit me around Christmas or Thanksgiving 2009 here in Austin. We went shopping for a couple of things and stopped into Walmart, when he asked if he could grab a copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Sure, why not? He then told me how much of a hassle it is to buy that game in the Bay Area where he lives. Insuring he was over 18 included a system where his drivers license was scanned and checked against a database to insure his license was legit and he was who he said he was. But for a guy in his mid 30s to have to go through that? (damn his youthful good looks!) It's ridiculous. We then joked about walking 30 feet over and trying to buy a gun. This is Texas, after all, and we bet that it was nearly as hard to buy Call of Duty in California as it is to buy a gun here in Texas. That's messed up on many levels. But my brother got his Call of Duty, no problem. Bottom line? Good job, California-- you made it harder for a huge swatch of adult gamers to get their games by passing a law utlimately deemed unconstitutional.

For me, this doesn't really matter. I don't have an XBox or PS3, so I'm limited to games on the Wii and it's my wife, not the Supreme Court, who will rule against me for bringing adult video games into the house with my kids around. And my kids will not play games that are not age appropriate, same as our policy on movies. Which is really how it should be. A personal decision made by families, not some feckless and freedom-impinging attempt to "protect children" from games their parents ought to be "protecting" them from that really only serves to inconvenience regular adult customers.

This was an interesting case of a decision that split the court in different directions, with liberals and conservatives coming down on different sides of the issue. Both of Obama's recent appointments to the Court were against the California game ban, so if you want to give Obama some credit for something, there you go.

Justices Breyer and Thomas, two of the most liberal and conservative justices, respectively, were the only dissent. Breyer felt that protecting children was more important than freedom of expression (answering the rhetorical question, "Won't someone please think of the children?!?!!).

And Thomas defended the law going on a long philosophical discussion about how freedom of speech as conceived of by the writers of the First Amendment did not include a freedom to speak to children, and discussing the philosophies of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Also, being a fan of hard-core pornography, he wanted those damn kids to keep their filthy hands off of his porn stash! He also didn't appreciate the recent mini-game in the next Grand Theft Auto game where you leave some of your pubic hair on a coke can for a female c0-worker to enjoy. He wanted that banned. Ok, I made those last parts up. I figured if you read through the borning stuff about Locke and Rousseau and this wasn't a post about Lost, you ought to be rewarded with a joke.

However, the Court left some things open. While 5 justices (a majority) sided with the main opinion, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito agreed that the ban was unconstitutional, but left the door open to later regulating video games. They wrote:
There are reasons to suspect that the experience of playing violent video games just might be very different from reading a book, listening to the radio, or watching a movie or a television show.


For all these reasons, I would hold only that the particular law at issue here fails to provide the clear notice thatthe Constitution requires. I would not squelch legislative efforts to deal with what is perceived by some to be a significant and developing social problem. If differently framed statutes are enacted by the States or by the Federal Government, we can consider the constitutionality of those laws when cases challenging them are presented to us.

They invite the states to send them other video game bans, just as long as they're written differently. Um, thanks for striking down the California ban? If you're interested in reading tea leaves, add this to your brew: the Court today also agreed to hear a case that could overturn decency rules that have existed since before I was born, stemming from George Carlin's classic "7 Words you can't say on TV."

Bottom line: there are things to go all "nanny-state" about. Video games is not one of them. If kids are going to be rotten, they're going to be rotten with or without violent video games. Parents who would abrogate their responsibilities by letting little Jimmy and Jeffie play God of War or Dante's Inferno or Gears of War are likely to eb the kind of bad parents who raise crappy kids anyway. And they're likely to buy them the game without thinking because "it's whatever the brat wants and if it will shut him up for a few hours then fine." So please, think of the children. Exercise some self-restraint, do some god damn parenting, and let the adults have their fun without ridiculous bureaucracy getting in our way.

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