Epic Win for First Amendment in Violent Videogame Case

The Supreme Court scored an epic win for the First Amendment in striking down California’s prohibition on selling violent videogames to minors. The law was both overly broad—sweeping in a wide variety of games based on no objective standard and no age-based gradations—and underinclusive—with no restrictions on other types of media. With a few strictly drawn exceptions for historically unprotected speech—obscenity, incitement, fighting words—government lacks the power to restrict expression simply because of its content. And a legislature cannot create new types of unprotected speech simply by weighing its purported social costs against its alleged value.

“Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat,” Justice Scalia points out in his majority opinion. “But these cultural and intellectual differences are not constitutional ones.”

Moreover, the Court, citing Cato’s amicus brief, described how each generation’s new media produces consternation from adults who want to avoid the “seduction of the innocent” (to borrow a phrase from the attack on comic books in the 1950s). In the 19th century, dime novels and “penny dreadfuls” were blamed for social ills and juvenile delinquency. Later, Congress held hearings on the cartoon menace, which prompted the comic book industry to voluntarily adopt a ratings system. Backlash against certain kinds of movies and music caused those respective industries also to adopt voluntary ratings systems. And the videogame industry too adopted an effective and responsive ratings system after congressional hearings in the early ‘90s. Not only is all this hand-wringing overwrought, but self-regulation and parental oversight have worked—evidence from the Federal Trade Commission shows that the voluntary ratings system works more effectively with videogames than with any other medium—and they avoid First Amendment thickets. Adding a level of governmental control, even if were constitutional, would be counterproductive.

Here’s the Court’s opinion in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (Cato’s brief is cited on pages 9-10).