Washington video-game law in suspended animation

Friday, July 11, 2003

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A federal judge has temporarily blocked Washington’s new ban on selling violent video games to minors, saying the law’s opponents have raised serious questions about its constitutionality.

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik’s injunction puts the law, which was to take effect July 27, on hold at least until after he rules on whether the measure is unconstitutional.

“The games at issue in this litigation … frequently involve intricate, if obnoxious, story lines, detailed artwork, original scores and a complex narrative which evolves as the player makes choices and gains experience,” Lasnik wrote in yesterday’s order. “All of the games provided to the court for review are expressive and qualify as speech for purposes of the First Amendment.”

The law would impose a $500 fine on retailers who sell or rent video games depicting violence against police to children under 17.

Video game publishers and retailers contend that violates the Constitution’s free-speech guarantees, and similar laws elsewhere have been struck down.

But the state argues that the law is carefully tailored to withstand such a challenge because it focuses on the state’s compelling interest in curbing hostile and antisocial behavior among youths, including violence and aggression toward law enforcement officers.

“I strongly believe the courts will decide that the sickening levels of violence, brutality and racism being peddled to children for profit cannot be wrapped in our precious First Amendment,” said state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, the law’s sponsor.

The bill passed both chambers of the Legislature easily this year, despite opposition from game publishers and retailers. Gov. Gary Locke signed it into law in May.

But Lasnik questioned whether the law would accomplish the stated purpose, and said it could be either too narrow or too broad.

For example, it does not protect minors from all violent games, just those that include violence against police.

Meanwhile, the focus on police officers “appears to sweep too broadly in that it would restrict access to games which mirror mainstream movies or reflect heroic struggles against corrupt regimes,” Lasnik wrote in an order peppered with references to games such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Postal III and Minority Report: Everybody Runs.

The law is the first state statute of its kind in the country. Last month, a federal appeals court struck down a St. Louis County, Mo., ordinance that requires children under 17 to have parental consent before they can buy violent or sexually explicit video games or play similar arcade games. A similar ordinance in Indianapolis was also struck down.

Assistant Attorney General Jeff Even said the state would seek to establish arguments distinguishing Washington’s law from those ordinances.

“We’ll build a factual record to show how it’s different and how we ought to get a different result,” Even said.

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