Lawyers for the makers of “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” (GTA/VC) are proposing to move a lawsuit against the controversial video game from state to federal district court in Florida.
“Big, powerful corporations usually try to make it as difficult as possible to litigate against them, so they move cases into the arena that is most costly for the plaintiffs, which in our case would be federal court,” attorney Barry M. Silver of Boca Raton, Florida, told TechNewsWorld.
Silver represents an ad hoc organization of Haitian groups — based in Florida — called the Haitian-American Coalition of Palm Beach County. The coalition has filed a lawsuit against Rockstar Games and its parent Take-Two Interactive, both of New York City, as well as distributors and sellers of GTA/VC, including Microsoft, Sony Computer Entertainment, Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy, to pull the game from the marketplace.
However, rather than suing for the game’s over-the-top violence, the plaintiffs’ decision to focus on the game’s supposedly genocidal tone may result in a weak case, as the infamous “kill the Haitians” dialogue in the game was an order to wipe out the Haitian mafia and not to kill Haitians in general, as the suit alleges.
Silver said he will file an amended complaint in the case designed to keep the litigation in Florida. “In Florida, we have a clause regarding freedom of speech that’s different from the federal government’s,” the attorney said.
“Florida’s constitution says that the right to free speech shall not be abused. It’s our serious opinion that the people who sell, manufacture, and distribute this game have seriously abused that right,” he added.
According to the coalition, the award-winning game, which has sold 11 million copies, instructs players to “kill the Haitians” and awards points for each kill. “The first version of Grand Theft Auto just had your garden-variety killing, slaughter, mayhem and carnage,” Silver explained.
“This version takes the game to a new depth of viciousness and venality by targeting people based on their ethnic background for execution.”
Last month, in a deal brokered by the office of New York Mayor Bloomberg, Rockstar apologized for offending anyone with the game and agreed to remove the reference to Haitians in future versions of it. “That’s not what we want,” declared Daniella Henry, executive director of the Haitian American Community Council of Delray Beach, Florida, a member of the coalition. “We want an injunction. We want to recall the existing games.”
Neither Take Two nor its attorney could be reached immediately for comment on the case.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, the lawsuit raises some serious First Amendment issues. “Any time that a group or individuals seek to get a court to prohibit speech, it implicates the First Amendment,” legal director Randall C. Marshall told TechNewsWorld. “What’s happening here is you have several groups trying to prohibit the distribution of a video game because of the content of its speech.”
Offensive and Obnoxious
“There’s absolutely no doubt that this game is offensive and obnoxious,” Marshall noted, “but the solution to that situation is more speech, not censorship.”
Asked if the exhortation to “kill Haitians” in the game could be compared with painting a swastika on a synagogue, Marshall replied: “There’s a world of difference between going out and trying to intimidate specific individuals or groups based on race, religion or ethnicity and this video game. This video game is not intended to illegally intimidate Haitians or Cubans.”
Lawsuits against all sorts of entertainment companies based on their content have a long history, according to Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. “In virtually all these cases, the plaintiffs lose because there’s a very strong freedom of speech argument and a very weak argument for causation,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“It is highly unlikely that it can be shown that the mere fact that the video game Grand Theft Auto contains the words ‘kill the Haitians’ causes harm,” Tien said.