Video Game Industry Fights California Restrictions

A California law banning the sale or rental of violent video games to anyone under 17 is being challenged by two industry trade groups 10 days after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., on the grounds that the ban violates the First Amendment right to free speech. Schwarzenegger, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer and other officials are named in the suit, which the governor says he will fight.

Prefer Shield to Freedom?

Proponents of the law, which requires stricter labeling of games and imposes a maximum fine of US$1,000 on retailers who sell to minors, say that youths must be shielded from violence and that the law will give parents a chance to make decisions about which games are appropriate for their children.

Criteria for what constitutes a game that is too violent for minors, according to the California law, includes “infliction of gratuitous violence upon the victim beyond that necessary to commit the killing, needless mutilation of the victim’s body, and the helplessness of the victim.”

But opponents say the laws — similar regulations have been passed in Michigan and Illinois and struck down in Washington state, Indianapolis and St. Louis — chip away at free speech.

“Freedom of expression is at stake,” David L. Hudson Jr., research attorney with the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., told the E-Commerce Times. “It is an important case given the proliferation of these violent video game laws. Despite at least three setbacks in the federal courts, these laws keep coming and coming.”

Free Speech Threat

Hudson said the case could have implications beyond the video game industry.

“The First Amendment protects violence unless it crosses the line into true threats, incitement to imminent lawless action or fighting words. Much literature, including the Bible, contains violence,” he said. “There is no wholesale exemption from the First Amendment for violent-themed material. It appears to be a targeted ban on one medium, but there would be nothing to stop a similar ban in other media if this was successful.”

ESA counts as members the majority of major video game makers, including Atari, Capcom, Electronic Arts, LucasArts, Microsoft, Nintendo Sony Entertainment and Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Along with video and gaming stores, the 2,600 members of the VSDA include the home video divisions of all major and independent movie studios and major distributors of video entertainment.

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