In 2005, the California legislature passed, and the Governor signed into law, Assembly Bill 1179. The new law prohibited selling or renting to minors any video games that depict killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting any image of a human being – particularly if the assault is especially heinous, cruel, or depraved. As in torture.
Retailers who violated the law would have been liable in an amount up to $1,000 for each violation.
On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California can’t regulate the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. The Act violates the First Amendment.
According to the ruling, California sought to create a new category of content-based regulation permissible only for speech directed at children. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, stated:
This country has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence. And California’s claim that “interactive” video games present special problems, in that the player participates in the violent action on the screen and determines its outcome, is unpersuasive.
He went on to say that California would have had to demonstrate that the law passes strict scrutiny – that is, that the law is justified by a compelling government interest and is narrowly drawn to serve that interest. The court ruled that the law does not pass the test. According to Justice Scalia:
Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media. Since California has declined to restrict those other media, e.g., Saturday morning cartoons, its video game regulation is wildly underinclusive, raising serious doubts about whether the law is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.
The court declared that the video-game industry’s voluntary rating system already meets the alleged substantial need of parents who wish to restrict access to violent videos.
In addition to being underinclusive, the Act is overinclusive, since not all children who are prohibited from purchasing violent video games have parents who disapprove of their doing so.
The law’s author, Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), lamented the ruling, saying that it put the interests of corporate America before the interests of California’s children.