U.S. Supreme Court judges ruled Monday that retailers and rental places cannot deny children the right to buy violent video games. With a gaming shop located in Eureka, how does this new ruling affect local consumers?
In a decision 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."
Owner of Eureka-based , Jay Hathaway, said no one typically asks him about game ratings. "Most parents, I'd say 99.9 percent, don't really care. Some come in with their kids asking about games together, but about the only time that happens is for really younger children."
Hathaway said he doesn't think it's a problem for most families because "kids playing games are able to separate reality from fantasy games."
He said the Supreme Court ruling doesn't change his business at all. "It's fine. We've never seen any problems with that."
Eureka-Wildwood Patch Moms' Council parent Layla Azmi Goushey said she agrees with the court's decision because the ruling upholds the right of all individuals to free speech and access to ideas.
"Freedom of speech is an important component of democracy, and it supports our growth as individuals and as a society. This does not mean that I think it is OK for preteens or young teenagers to have access to video games with violent or sexually explicit themes," she said.
"Parents are responsible for knowing what their kids are doing."
She said many times, parents supply the money for preteens and young teenagers to purchase video games. "However, inappropriate and violent messages are everywhere in our society, and most of the same kids whose families own X-Boxes and Wiis, also have Internet access. The Internet contains ideas and messages that are just as inappropriate as the violence in video games," she said.
What we all need during this age of rapid, easy-access to information, said Azmi Goushey, is to become more aware of the responsibilities of this access.
"We must learn to 'read' the messages available to us through our new technologies and treat that information responsibly. Children should be taught how to determine which information is credible, useful and supportive of a positive direction for their lives," she said.
Although many schools are introducing information literacy into their curriculum, Azmi Goushey believes parents should not depend on schools and retail outlets to teach essential values and responsibility.
Diane Engle, also a Eureka-Wildwood Patch Moms Council parent, said she, too, agrees with the court's ruling. "It is the parents' responsibility to monitor what a child is purchasing, renting and playing. There are many parents today who are relying on the government to supervise their child," she said.
"It's the same thing as taking toys out of Happy Meals because Happy Meals 'make kids fat.' No, Happy Meals do not make kids fat—it's their parents who can't say no when kids whine for the toy!"
Reasons for Disagreement
Justices Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas dissented from the majority ruling, arguing that the California law should have been upheld.
Breyer wrote that Monday's 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 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.
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 which to turn.
"Certainly the books we give children to read—or read to them when they are younger—contain no shortage of gore," Scalia said.
A complete copy of Monday's ruling in the case, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, is available here.