California violent video game law struck down by US Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, has voted down the California law that would have made selling video and PC games with violent content to minors a crime. The decision in the Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association case brings to a close a court battle over the law that stretches out nearly six years. The full opinion of the court can be read at the court's official web site.

The law itself, first proposed by then California State Assemblyman (now California State Senator) Leland Yee, was signed in 2005 by then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The now defeated law would have put labels on certain games with violent content and would have fined retailers who sold such games to minors. However the video game industry sued on First Amendment grounds and got the law's enforcement suspended until the lawsuit went through the court system. While two lower court decisions said that the law was unconstitutional, California went ahead and appealed the decisions to the nine judges of the US Supreme Court. The judges heard opening arguments for and against the law in November 2010.

With today's US Supreme Court decision that means that other states will likely not bother any more with trying to pass similar laws on their own. It's also likely that the video game industry will ask the court system to have the state of California pay for the video game industry's legal fees surrounding the case. That's money that the state, which is dealing with a huge government budget crisis, likely doesn't have.

We will update this news post with more info on today's very important US Supreme Court decision.

Update: In their posted official decision to strike down the California video game law, the official opinion of the court stated, "As a means of protecting children from portrayals of violence, the legislation is seriously underinclusive, not only because it excludes portrayals other than video games, but also because it permits a parental or avuncular veto. And as a means of assisting concerned parents it is seriously overinclusive because it abridges the First Amendment rights of young people whose parents (and aunts and uncles) think violent video games are a harm-less pastime. And the overbreadth in achieving one goal is not cured by the underbreadth in achieving the other. Legislation such as this, which is neither fish nor fowl, cannot survive strict scrutiny."

Two of the judges, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer, voted to support the California law. Both also wrote lengthy dissenting opinions. Thomas stated, "In the typical case, the only speech affected is speech that bypasses a minor’s parent or guardian. Because such speech does not fall within 'the freedom of speech' as originally under-stood, California’s law does not ordinarily implicate the First Amendment and is not facially unconstitutional."

Breyer stated, "Sometimes, children need to learn by making choices for themselves. Other times, choices are made for children—by their parents, by their teachers,and by the people acting democratically through their governments. 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."

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26 Comments

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The US Constitution is a pretty straightforward and easy read. This is why I'm amazed when someone concludes that the Constitution *means* the opposite of what it *says*. I don't understand why people are so unwilling to use the freedoms enumerated within the Constitution as a foundation for proposed legislation instead of trying to dismantle those liberties all the time. The root of the issue seems to be that most people think it's a bad idea for others to have too much freedom.

The violent video game thing was an especially absurd brand of sanity. Products have ratings, game systems have parental controls. Children typically don't have $60 laying around and a car to get to the store. These factors should make it a non issue. Add to that the fact that my brother played a lot of Age of Empires but that doesn't mean he's going to try to conquer France next week. Shall we go after the makers of the Sims for causing so many people to live boring, mediocre lives?

Neb Okla said,
Add to that the fact that my brother played a lot of Age of Empires but that doesn't mean he's going to try to conquer France next week.

Well, he should not have much trouble with that...the french always surrender in the end...

sviola said,

Well, he should not have much trouble with that...the french always surrender in the end...

Now some French kid who plays too much AOE Online is going to build a trebuchet and hut you down. Oh wait... thank goodness France doesn't have any kind of meaningful Constitution to protect free speech and the like (burka ban).

alexalex said,
Why not remove, on First Amendment grounds, movies age restrictions as well ?

The MPAA rating system is part of a private consortium, therefore it is not held to constitutional limits. It is voluntary actions that have led to the establishment of the MPAA system, not coercion on behalf of the state.

DClark said,

The MPAA rating system is part of a private consortium, therefore it is not held to constitutional limits. It is voluntary actions that have led to the establishment of the MPAA system, not coercion on behalf of the state.

It's only "voluntary" in that the MPAA was formed in order to stave off government intervention/regulation decades ago. Since that kind of restriction would never actually survive a similar First Amendment court challenge, both sides are happy to leave this as "voluntary" and paid for by the big 5 studio cartel.

I am looking forward to the Supreme Court's decision on Obamacare (ETA next year) - this crowd of libertarians are setting the record straight for governments that are stepping beyond their boundaries.

DClark said,
I am looking forward to the Supreme Court's decision on Obamacare (ETA next year) - this crowd of libertarians are setting the record straight for governments that are stepping beyond their boundaries.

But how could a government not premised on theft, force, and coerscion possibly function?!?

Anyone else get the picture of Dee Snyder and John Denver infront of the Senate and the PMRC back in the 80's in their heads when you read the above article?

dtunesrus said,
Anyone else get the picture of Dee Snyder and John Denver infront of the Senate and the PMRC back in the 80's in their heads when you read the above article?

John Denver might be with us today if he had played more Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Waste of 6 years time and money ... would have been better spent on educating parents on what the games they are buying their kids actually contain/involve!

bushbrother said,
Waste of 6 years time and money ... would have been better spent on educating parents on what the games they are buying their kids actually contain/involve!

B-b-but that would require parents to actually do their jobs as parents!!! /s

What a waste of money and time. Kids will always have parents or friends to buy them the games so why even try this? I mean... I would love it if there were no kids on COD games singing Justin Bieber songs but that's the way it is, sadly lol.

O5M3L said,
What a waste of money and time. Kids will always have parents or friends to buy them the games so why even try this? I mean... I would love it if there were no kids on COD games singing Justin Bieber songs but that's the way it is, sadly lol.

"What a waste of money and time. Kids will always have parents or friends to buy them the alcohol so why even try this? I mean... I would love it if there were no drunks on COD games singing Justin Bieber songs but that's the way it is, sadly lol."
See what I did there? :-D

O5M3L said,
What a waste of money and time. Kids will always have parents or friends to buy them the games so why even try this? I mean... I would love it if there were no kids on COD games singing Justin Bieber songs but that's the way it is, sadly lol.

So true. I'm always buying violent and bloody games for my children. They just love me for it. /s

FMH said,

So true. I'm always buying violent and bloody games for my children. They just love me for it. /s

You being here on a tech site tells me that you know a thing or two about video games, their content and how the content rating system works. Many parents, especially of the enraged type that would have wanted this sort of law, seem to be unaware of the rating system

/California would have been better served making a series of informative commercials as to how the ESRB ratings work, and what to look for, than trying to pass this law

The now defeated law would have put labels on certain games with violent content

Wait, what? I know politicians often try to enact laws to cover areas that are already covered by existing law, but this (as it often does) shows how little they know about what they are trying to regulate. As I'm sure everyone here already knows, games have this little thing on them called an ESRB rating, they are kind of like movie ratings, only better. On the front of the box, we see the letter rating, which puts the game into an age category, much like the movie ratings, but (and here is where the ESRB is better) on the back, not only do we get a repeat of the rating, but we also get a short list of reasons WHY that rating was given. Reasons could be something like "Comic mischief" or "violence" or "sexual content involving nudity"

TL;DR and conclusion: WE ALREADY HAVE THIS IN PLACE YOU SILLY WASTES OF TAXPAYER MONEY

/rant off

Sraf said,

Wait, what? I know politicians often try to enact laws to cover areas that are already covered by existing law, but this (as it often does) shows how little they know about what they are trying to regulate. As I'm sure everyone here already knows, games have this little thing on them called an ESRB rating, they are kind of like movie ratings, only better. On the front of the box, we see the letter rating, which puts the game into an age category, much like the movie ratings, but (and here is where the ESRB is better) on the back, not only do we get a repeat of the rating, but we also get a short list of reasons WHY that rating was given. Reasons could be something like "Comic mischief" or "violence" or "sexual content involving nudity"

TL;DR and conclusion: WE ALREADY HAVE THIS IN PLACE YOU SILLY WASTES OF TAXPAYER MONEY

/rant off

Not that I'm defending California, but the ESRB is a trade group with no government oversight. It is a voluntary organization whose members are the corporations. The ESRB has the power to change its rules whenever it wants with no oversight.

It's kind of like the organizations that claim their product is "organic" but don't tell you what that means.

T1Famous said,
So does this mean no more running into young kids on console games?
Ummmm....what? I think this means the exact opposite.