Two years ago today, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the First Amendment rights of gamers and the games industry. This ruling came about after years of legal battles between the games industry and various states. This particular ruling was over a legal dispute between the state of California and the games industry.
California had passed a law that would require labeling on violent video games and that would fine retailers who sold violent games to minors. However, the law was vague on the subject of what constituted violence in games. Meaning that anything from Bugs Bunny to Manhunt could have fallen foul under the law.
Much like in other states, the Entertainment Merchants Association challenged the law in court. Much like every other challenged law in the near dozen other states, the EMA was victorious in every court. California, not willing to back down, took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court took up the question, despite unanimous District Court rulings in favor of the games industry. This led many people to question the Supreme Courts motives. Would it seek to overturn all previous District precedents or would it reaffirm those rulings and apply that precedent across the US?
On June 27, 2011, The US Supreme Court released its ruling (PDF) on the case, declaring that violent video games are protected by the First Amendment.
We emphatically rejected that “startling and dangerous” proposition. Ibid. “Maybe there are some categories of speech that have been historically unprotected, but have not yet been specifically identified or discussed as such in our case law.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 9). But without persuasive evidence that a novel restriction on content is part of a long (if heretofore unrecognized) tradition of proscription, a legislature may not revise the “judgment [of] the American people,” embodied in the First Amendment, “that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs.”
This ruling was hoped to have ended this debate over violence in games once and for all. But much like many other controversial issues, it was not to be. State legislatures across the US and even the US Congress continued to propose legislation of various forms. While many of these bills have been proposed with no plans to go further than that, we have seen renewed and intensified efforts recently.
In December of 2012, Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and 6 adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, CT. Despite a lack of evidence on anyone’s part, video games quickly became one of the major scapegoats for this horrific event. Everyone from the media, the NRA, Legislators and even the President and Vice President fingered violent games as a culprit.
This latest hysteria has renewed interest in passing some kind of legislation to tax or restrict violent games. Laws have been proposed in Connecticut as well as other states such as New Jersey. The President of the United States has even called for more research to be done on the effect of violent games on children.
It is at this time, in which people are mourning the loss of loved ones and seeking answers, that is imperative that we continue the work to inform not just elected officials, but also the public on not just this important ruling, but also on the positives of gaming and gaming culture. While the Supreme Court ruling was an important step in establishing gaming as part of our combined culture, it was not the end of that journey.