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Violent video games: What's your take on the Supreme Court's decision? [Reader poll]

June 29, 2011 | 11:02 am

Video Game The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday overturned California's law banning retailers from selling or renting violent video games to people under 18 without parental consent.  It was a highly contested issue because on one side, people saw the law as inhibiting free speech.  On the other side of the debate, people said children should be protected from the violence contained in video games.  For the court, the decision hinged on 1st Amendment freedom of expression guarantees.

As our editorial board notes:

This decision will be unpopular with many, as was the court's decision upholding the right of hateful protesters to picket near military funerals. What the rulings have in common is an unyielding commitment to free speech that has served the nation well. As for parents who want to protect their children from unsuitable entertainment, this decision does not prevent them from laying down the law.

Catherine J. Ross, a law professor at George Washington University who focuses on 1st Amendment law, had a different read.  Her opinion piece for the Washington Post emphasizes the gaps and shortcomings of the law. For instance, she writes that California's statute didn't distinguish between "suitability for different age groups." She also points out that it ignored the fact that children have 1st Amendment rights too.

And she takes California to task for its "cynical approach to the rule of law."

The court pointed out that books from "Grimm’s Fairy Tales" to "The Odyssey" to "Lord of the Flies" are full of gruesome, gratuitous violence. Many great works of art could be off-limits to minors if offensive levels of violence were the litmus test, leaving youths unprepared to cope with the responsibilities of citizenship.

More broadly, California's cynical approach to the rule of law threatened all of us. Since 1954, the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment protects violent content. Yet California argued that violent video games should fall outside the First Amendment's purview and invited the court to add to the very narrow list of categories of content deemed outside the protections of the First Amendment's speech clause. Alternatively, California tried to shoehorn violent video games into the complex definition of obscenity. This was a huge stretch. Whatever obscenity is or is not, it has long been clear that it has always been limited to sexual prurience.

Cheryl K. Olson, a public health researcher, reminds us in the New York Times that more specific studies on how violent video games affect children in different circumstances are needed.  She notes in her op-ed article that we must keep in mind we are only starting to learn how the law can and should relate to video games.

In the end, the most harmful assumption in the California law is that we know enough about the effects of video games to recommend policy solutions. (I was one of dozens of advisers for a supporting brief filed by those who challenged the law.) Almost no studies of video games and youth have been designed with policy in mind. If we want to mitigate risks of harm to our children (or the risk that our children will harm others), we need research on the specific effects of the most commonly played violent games, and of playing violent games in social groups.

We know virtually nothing, for instance, about how youths who are already prone to violent behavior, such as those exposed to violence at home and in their neighborhoods, use these games. Do they play them differently from the way other children do? Do they react differently? And if so, how might we limit the risks involved?

Now that you have more information about the law and its background, we want to know: What's your opinion on the Supreme Court ruling?



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--Julia Gabrick

Photo: JT Taga-Anderson, 9, left, and Mika Taga-Anderson, 13, play Grand Theft Auto IV in Los Altos, Calif. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press

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