Columbine lawsuits seek to blame the image and the game

Saturday, June 2, 2001

A lawsuit filed by the families of several victims of the April 1999 Columbine High School massacre not only carries the blame game to a new high, but launches a new assault on free speech as protected under the First Amendment.

According to The Associated Press, the families have filed suit against 25 entertainment companies, including Nintendo of America, Sega of America, Sony Computer Entertainment, Time Warner Inc. (now AOL Time Warner), ID Software Inc., and GT Interactive Software Corp. The lawsuit, which seeks $5 billion in punitive damages, alleges that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 12 students and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves, would not have committed these acts had they not been exposed to
violent video games. It also mentions that Kleibold and Harris visited Web sites featuring sexually violent content.

“Absent the combination of extremely violent video games and these boys’ incredibly deep involvement, use of and addiction to these games and the boys’ basic personalities, these murders and this massacre would not have occurred,” the lawsuit stated.

It is all too easy to blame violent content in movies, television, music, video games and other entertainment for a loosening of societal mores. As a matter of fact, according to a 1999 survey conducted by the First Amendment Center, 83% of respondents thought that television violence contributes to violence in real life, 74% felt violent video games spilled over into reality, and 72% responded that violent lyrics contribute to violence in society.

The conundrum here is that while it is perfectly acceptable to decry violence in various forms of entertainment as free speech protected by the First Amendment, the visions of those entertainments’ creators, while they may cause distaste and revulsion for their detractors, are also protected by
that same First Amendment.

As the parent of three children, two of them boys, I experienced my share of chagrin over some of my sons’ tastes in music and video games. “Doom” and “Doom II” (“Doom” is one of the violent video games mentioned in the Columbine lawsuit), as well as the “Mortal Kombat” video game series, music by Insane Clown Posse and the Beastie Boys, and other entertainments I found repellent made for some lively home debates about appropriateness. I can recall mock-violent pitched battles in the backyard between my sons and their friends, featuring four-foot-long, two-inch thick wooden dowels, “bos,” as they called them, inspired by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. No one was ever seriously injured. More importantly, neither of my sons (or any of their friends) ever packed off to school carrying automatic or other weapons, intent on murdering their teachers and classmates. They are both now successful young adults.

The point here is that none of us will ever know precisely what went so horribly wrong in the lives and minds of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to cause them to become suicidal mass murderers. However, if violent
entertainment was such a driving force behind their actions, our rural areas, every small town, city, and school in America should be afflicted with high levels of violence. But they are not. And children are still safer
in our schools than they are as passengers in their parents’ automobiles.

Part of the beauty of the First Amendment lies in its contradictory nature; it allows us to protest works of art, music and entertainment that offend us, while protecting the creators of those works. While it is impossible for most of us to know the pain and bitterness of the families of the Columbine victims, it is all too easy, as the First Amendment Center survey has shown, for us to find bogeymen to place blame on. As a result of that, politicians and lawyers are all too willing to exploit public opinion for personal and financial gain, often with the best intentions. The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions. Our hell, if lawsuits such as the one filed by the Columbine victims’ families ever succeed, could be a future where freedom of speech is a thing of the past and expression is legislated and regulated.

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