Observer Wire Services
WASHINGTON A California law that would forbid the sale of violent video games to minors won a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, as the justices voted to take up the state’s argument that exceptionally violent material can be kept out of the hands of children without running afoul of the First Amendment.
The move could signal that the court’s broad protection for free speech in other contexts does not necessarily extend to children and teenagers.
Six other states – Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Washington – have laws similar to California’s. So far, all those have been invalidated on free-speech grounds after lawsuits by the video-gaming industry.
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It was something of a surprise that the high court agreed to hear California’s appeal just a week after the justices, in an 8-1 ruling, struck down on free-speech grounds a federal law that made it a crime to sell videos of illegal acts of animals being tortured or maimed.
The court gave two reasons for declaring that law unconstitutional. First, the justices said they were wary of creating a new category of unprotected expression, and second, they said the law was so broadly worded it could extend to out-of-season hunting.
Over the many months the court considered the animal-cruelty case, it kept the California video games case on hold. Based on last week’s ruling, the justices might have been expected to deny the appeal and to allow the state’s law to expire. Instead, they voted to grant the appeal and hear the case in the fall.
“It strikes me the court might be willing to draw a line between the adult First Amendment and the ‘child’s First Amendment,’” said Rodney Smolla, a free-speech expert and dean of the Washington and Lee Law School. “Despite this court’s strong inclination to endorse expansive free-speech rights in the general marketplace, it has been willing at times to carve exceptions for speech involving children.”
As an example, he cited the court’s ruling in 2007 that said a high-school senior could be disciplined for unfurling a banner on the street outside his school that said “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” The court’s opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the father of two young children.
The California Legislature voted in 2005 to limit the sale or rental of games in which players “virtually inflict serious injury upon images of human beings… in a manner that is especially heinous, cruel or depraved.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was pleased with the court’s action. “We have a responsibility to our kids and our communities to protect against the effects of games that depict ultra-violent action, just as we do with movies,” he said. In our forums: Should the government ban the sale of violent video games to minors? Or should parents exercise that control?