A parent’s take on the high court’s video-game ruling

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A quick disclaimer — I’ve worked for the First Amendment Center for 17 years and am adamant about our First Amendment rights and responsibilities. When my daughter came along in 2004 I have to admit I looked at the First Amendment through another lens. Though the government wasn’t censoring what was going on in our household, I became a censor. The morning news programs were no longer on when I prepared breakfast. The radio was not tuned to the more popular music stations and I set parental blocks on certain television stations — sorry, Snooki.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association that video games were a form of protected speech. The Court held that, similar to books, movies and plays, video games communicate ideas. As with other literary devices, video games often have plots, characters and themes. I’m pleased with the Court’s decision.

The case came before the Court after the California Legislature passed a law requiring special labeling on violent-video game packaging and forbidding the sale or rental of these games to minors. California lawmakers modeled their new provision after the obscenity exception to the First Amendment. But the Supreme Court refused to create an additional category of unprotected speech. Looking back in history, the Court said that yes, there have been regulations on obscene materials and on what is appropriate for minors, but there have not been regulations “restricting children’s access to depictions of violence.”

While some argue that the Court’s decision is a nod to allowing the entertainment industry to continue to profit on these sales, I take the approach as a parent and a First Amendment advocate that the Court rightly decided that a legislative body cannot dictate which material may or may not enter my household — in the name of aiding my parental authority.

Especially promising with yesterday’s decision was the reinforcement that “minors are entitled to a significant measure of First Amendment protection.” Quoting from an earlier decision, the Court reiterated that “speech that is neither obscene as to youths nor subject to some other legitimate proscription cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable to them.”

Do I find these violent video games disturbing? Yes. I also found it disturbing as a child when young Travis in the children’s classic “Old Yeller” had to kill his beloved dog or when the queen in “Snow White” demanded the heart of her stepdaughter. Did either film lead me to a life of violence? No. As the Court notes, violence is found in such classics as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Odyssey and Lord of the Flies. Just as we’ve discussed as a family the kinds of movies and books that are appropriate, we will discuss the video games allowed on the gaming devices in our home.

I am pleased that the Court acknowledged yesterday that “under our Constitution, ‘esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature … are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with mandate or approval of a majority.’”

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