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US Supreme Court rules against California violent games law

Games industry victorious in hotly-debated court case

The video game industry has won an important legal battle today as the US Supreme Court ruled against the California violent games law which sought to ban the sale of violent video games to minors.

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The bill, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger back in 2005, made it illegal for games with violent content to be sold to anyone under 18, and required a warning sticker on the box.

But the Supreme Court today threw out the law by a vote of 7-2, ruling that it goes against the First Amendment and 'the basic principles of freedom of speech'.

"The Federal District Court concluded that the Act violated the First Amendment and permanently enjoined its enforcement," confirms the released Syllabus.

"Video games qualify for First Amendment protection," it ruled, adding, "Like protected books, plays, and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium. And "the basic principles of freedom of speech . . . do not vary" with a new and different communication medium."

"The most basic principle-that government lacks the power to restrict expression because of its message, ideas, subject matter, or content, ... is subject to a few limited exceptions for historically unprotected speech, such as obscenity, incitement, and fighting words. But a legislature cannot create new categories of unprotected speech simply by weighing the value of a particular category against its social costs and then punishing it if it fails the test," it goes on.

The ruling states that studies attempting to find a link between games and violent behaviour in children have been inconclusive, and failed to expose any particular difference between games and other media such as cartoons in relation to the matter.

"Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media," it says. "Since California has declined to restrict those other media, e.g., Saturday morning cartoons, its video-game regulation is wildly underinclusive, raising serious doubts about whether the State is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint."

It also praised the ESRB rating system, which it said "does much to ensure that minors cannot purchase seriously violent games on their own, and that parents who care about the matter can readily evaluate the games their children bring home."

So the parenting of minors is left squarely in the hands of parents, and it's a victory for games and freedom of speech. Although you should still probably not let little Johnny get down on Dead Space 2. Games have ratings on them, consoles have parental settings and you all, we'd like to assume, have the brains to potentially use them.

The full 35-page Syllabus can be read over here.

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