A 2005 California law requiring labeling of violent video games and banning their sale to minors was declared unconstitutional by a California District Court this week. Assembly Bill No. 1179[pdf] (which endearingly defines video games as “electronic amusement device[s]”) was challenged by the Entertainment Software Association and the Video Software Dealers Association shortly after being signed into law by Governator Schwarzenegger (who endearingly starred in many violent films before inveighing against violent games). The plaintiffs got a preliminary injunction before the law went into effect; the latest decision makes that injunction permanent.
The decision quotes highlights from the bill, including its definitions of “heinous,” “depraved,” and “torture.” “Needless mutilation of the victim's body” is a particularly pertinent factor in the assessment of the game's violence, raising the question: when is mutilation of a victim's body necessary?
Minors do not have full First Amendment rights, and states may encroach on the First Amendment if they have a “compelling interest.” But content-based regulations are particularly repugnant to the constitution, and California's video game law couldn't overcome that defect by being narrowly tailored to the state interest of protecting minors from becoming violent by being exposed to violent games. That's in part because the state couldn't show that violent video games were any more dangerous to minors than violent movies, tv, or the internet. (It's worth noting that the movie-rating system is a voluntary industry measure, not government-imposed.)
A victory for games as communicative speech deserving of First Amendment protection, this case also raises a few interesting questions. States can and do limit minors' access to sexually explicit material (indeed, the law was passed shortly after the revelation of sexual content in Grand Theft Auto) – so why the higher standard to limit their exposure to violence? Should the courts be interrogating the science behind a legislature's choices?