Supreme Court Axes Videogame Ban, but the Game Isn’t Over Yet

Videogame publishers celebrated the Supreme Court decision today that ruled that a California law banning the sale of violent videogames to minors is unconstitutional, but the issue may be far from dead.

In fact, State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), the law’s author, is not willing to go down so easily after waging an eight-year legislative and legal battle that aimed to restrict the sale of some of the industry’s most popular games, like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto.

“We’ll comb through it and see if there’s something that will pass constitutional muster,” Yee’s chief of staff, Adam Keigwin, told me. “If not, we’ll wait until there’s a change in the makeup of the court.”

Keigwin added, “It’s certainly something the senator is considering.”

Yee currently represents California’s District 8, which includes San Francisco and San Mateo Counties, and is now running for mayor of San Francisco — all areas rich with videogame publishers and developers.

The court, in a 7-2 ruling, said the law violated First Amendment free-speech protections, but four justices left the window open for new legislation that would not violate the constitution. [Here’s the full opinion of the court.]

In particular, Justice Samuel Alito indicated the language is too vague to rule accurately, but he would welcome a new version that would address how violent videogames affect youths.

“I would not squelch legislative efforts to deal with what is perceived by some to be a significant and developing social problem. If differently framed statutes are enacted by the States or by the Federal Government, we can consider the constitutionality of those laws when cases challenging them are presented to us,” he wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who dissented, was more blunt: “I would hold that the law at issue is not facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment, and reverse and remand for further proceedings.”

Still, the videogame industry, including the Entertainment Software Association, which was the lead party in the case, considered the ruling a victory.

John Riccitiello, who is chair of the ESA and CEO of Electronic Arts, issued a statement: “Throughout American history, every new creative medium has to fight to establish its rights. Like books and film, videogames have had to face down censors and stand up for creative freedom. This was a long, hard, expensive fight, but it pulled together the developers, publishers and fans into a powerful political coalition. There will be other censors, other challenges. But now we’ve got an army in the field to stand up for the rights of game developers and players.”

The original legislation was passed six years ago and signed into law as Assembly Bill 1179. It called for the prevention of the sale and rental of violent video games that “depict serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel,” to people under the age of 18 years.

Retailers who violated the act would have been liable for up to $1,000 for each violation.

In a statement, Yee said: “Unfortunately, the majority of the Supreme Court once again put the interests of corporate America before the interests of our children. As a result of their decision, Wal-Mart and the video game industry will continue to make billions of dollars at the expense of our kids’ mental health and the safety of our community. It is simply wrong that the video game industry can be allowed to put their profit margins over the rights of parents and the well-being of children.”

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