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It's A Child's First Amendment Right To Buy A Violent Video Game

Kids in Hazelwood now have a First Amendment right to buy violent video games, no matter how gory or graphic, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week. Hazelwood Patch's Parents Council weighs-in.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 27 that retailers and rental places cannot deny kids the right to buy violent video games, prompting mixed reactions from some parents in and around Hazelwood.

Parents Speak

"In today's society, you don't know the mental condition of an individual," said Patch events writer Marcia Jarrett, who is a mother of three children that have attended . "Children and some adults can be influenced by a video game, especially if they had a troublesome childhood, and this could be a gateway in which to bring the video game to reality."

In a ruling that reversed a 2005 California law, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said access to violent video games is protected under the First Amendment, regardless of the consumer's age.

"No doubt a state possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm," Scalia said in the case's majority opinion. "But that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed."

That reasoning didn't sit well with some parents, including Parents Councilmember Angela Atkinson, a Hazelwood parent of three, who said she believes parents should have the right to approve any game their child purchases. 

"I think that parents should approve all games their children play, so no, I don’t think kids should be allowed to purchase any game that contains violence without a parent’s permission," she said. "I think they should check ID for games just like they would for "R" rated movies at the theater.

"There is a reason those games have ratings."

Patch sports writer Cedric Williams shared the same sentiment on the movie identification concept, and admitted that during his time in college he felt how addictive gaming can be.

"I realized I was spending all my free time either playing or figuring out how I could get better at them," he said. "I once wrote my own player's manual for the Madden 1992 game. It took me two months to study every team and every player. I realized I had to stop or it would take over my life."

Industry Response

GameStop and some other retailers bar the sale of Mature-rated games to minors as a company policy. GameStop's Senior Vice President of Stores Mike Dzura said his company supports last Monday's decision.

"GameStop continues to believe that the video game industry's voluntary ratings system and our committed associates, not legislation, are the best ways to ensure age-appropriate video games make it into the hands of our younger customers,” Dzura said in an email.

A concern for some parents may be how to monitor game purchases when children live in multiple households. Patch Parents Councilmember Tera Stalhut, who has four children from a previous relationship, said her concern would be what the law does when the birth parents aren't necessarily on the same accord.

"For my kids, I don't want their minds influenced toward the dark and bad things of this world, and I also don't want my kids to think that in real life you get "do-overs" if you die or do something bad to someone," she said. "My kids' dad does allow my boys (8 and 9) to play violent games, however he claims to be in the room with them when they play."

Stalhut said she gets resolve from knowing that she is teaching her children to make the right decisions. "Hopefully they will make the right choices when it comes to playing these games," she said.

Dissent within the Court

Justices Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas dissented from the majority ruling, arguing that the California law should have been upheld.

Breyer wrote that the June 27 ruling created a division within the First Amendment since the Supreme Court has upheld bans forbidding the sale of pornography to minors.

"What sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting the sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her?" Breyer said. "What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman—bound, gagged, tortured and killed--is also topless?"

Thomas disagreed with the majority on the basis that other exceptions to free speech already exist when dealing with minors.

"The practices and beliefs of the founding generation establish that 'the freedom of speech,' as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors–or a right of minors to access speech–without going through the minors’ parents or guardians," Thomas said in his dissent.

Although the original California state law never took effect, it sought to stop the sale of any video games to children that depicted "killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being."

Although he ultimately concurred with the majority's decision, Justice Samuel Alito cited concerns about the ruling, in part because of the extreme nature of other video games, including some that aren't available at most or any walk-in retailers in the U.S. Among other titles, Alito alluded to the game "Manhunt 2," which involves the dismemberment of bodies and awards points to the player for how creatively and grotesquely he mutilates his murder victims. He also cited the game PC game "Ethnic Cleansing," in which the player selects a specific minority group then proceeds to gun down members of that race. Another game cited in Alito's judgement footnotes was "RapeLay," where the objective is to rape a mother and her daughters.

"For all these reasons, I would hold only that the particular law at issue here fails to provide the clear notice that the Constitution requires," Alito said. "I would not squelch legislative efforts to deal with what is perceived by some to be a significant and developing social problem."

Alito said the court in the future may rule on an issue dealing with a broader scope regarding video game content and access if and when it reaches the Supreme Court.

Last Monday's case did not specifically address the sale of games rated Adults Only, by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, for example, which typically are associated with pornography but sometimes apply to games with "prolonged scenes of intense violence." Few if any major U.S. retailers carry Adults Only-rated video games.

Scalia said the United States does not have a history of blocking children's access specifically to violence in other forms, citing several examples such as fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, which concludes with the story's protagonists killing a witch by baking her in an oven.

Although lower courts concluded that video games were a unique exception partly because they're inherently "interactive," Scalia said media including books such as the Adventures of You have had interactive and sometimes violent elements for decades; similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure series, Adventures of You allow readers to change a story's plot by giving them options for what page to turn to.

"Certainly the books we give children to read—or read to them when they are younger—contain no shortage of gore," Scalia said.

The Conclusion: Be A Parent

In the end, this is now law of the land and although parents by law may not be able to regulate the purchase, one thing each Parents Councilmember agreed with was that parents have to be parents.

"From video games to movies, music, and even sports, parents have to be parents, and get themselves informed about what's going on with the things their kids like," Williams said.

"I think I would probably cave and let my kid play a violent game, but not until we sat down and had a talk about it," said Parents Councilmember Nichole Richardson. "I would explain it's a game and fake and not ok to ever do any of these things in real life."

"Parents know their kids better than anyone else," Atkinson said. " So I think that the choice should be made considering each child’s sensitivities and general disposition, as well as the family’s religious and ethical beliefs."

A complete copy of the June 27 ruling in the case, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, is available here.

Tera Stahlhut July 06, 2011 at 09:45 PM
Excellent article, very informative. Thanks for posting Candace!

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