The lead counsel for the video game industry in the upcoming Supreme Court fight against California’s proposed violent video game restrictions outlined the problems with the state’s legal arguments in a recent public appearance.
Speaking at an intellectual property forum at Chicago-Kent University last week, Jenner and Block LLP Partner Paul M. Smith said that no matter how a state defines "extreme" violence in such laws, they will run into constitutional problems with vagueness.
"I’ve litigated nine cases in a row where states have tried to define the category nine different ways – and they always lose when they make this case because violence is considered a perfectly appropriate and normal part of what we give our kids to see starting from a very young age," he said.
"Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, there’s lots and lots of violence in all of those things," he continued. "You have to figure out a way to use the English language to describe some subset of violence which is different from that. Even though people are being murdered and beheaded all the time in Lord of the Rings, you don’t want to make it a crime to sell a DVD of Lord of the Rings to a 16-year-old child."
To let California’s law stand, the high court would pretty much have to carve out a new exception to the First Amendment for minors’ exposure to violent content, as it did for sexual content in 1968’s Ginsberg v. New York decision. But Smith pointed out that the current court has been loathe to create new First Amendment exceptions in the recent past.
"This is something they pretty much rejected a week before they took this case, in the Stevens case, which was the animal cruelty videos case, where the court ruled against creating new exceptions," he said. "I guess what the real question in this case is, regarding kids, do we carve out separate exceptions for them and not for anybody else?"
In the absence of some new, court-defined exception to the First Amendment, Smith said the state would have real trouble meeting the strict scrutiny generally required for any restriction on free speech.
"They barely make an effort to satisfy strict scrutiny," he said. "…They’d have to show that there’s enormous harm prevented by this law outside the existing rating system, that there’s no less restrictive way to do it, that there’s no overbroad effects, and that’s an extremely difficult test to meet," Smith said.
As far as the "enormous harm," Smith said the state has utterly failed to show compelling evidence that violent games cause any significant problems for minors’ development.
"There is a group of psychologists out there who have made their careers trying to prove that there’s something wrong with video games, but their studies … find these tiny little effects of maybe three percent more likely that you would be an aggressive school kid with violent video games," he said.
"The other things is, their social scientists don’t show a bit of evidence that violent video games are any worse than television, or movies, or anything else that you can experience," he continued. "The notion is that playing the games makes it more harmful or engaged in a different way, but even taking the evidence they’ve marshaled, they just don’t make that claim."
And that lack of a distinction means that any decision against violent games could easily spread to other media, Smith warned. "It’s going to be extended to movies, to the internet, to television, all of which are out there with no limit at all on what they can contain. So that is something that would be an extremely bold, revolutionary move by the court," he said.
With federal and state courts unanimously rejecting similar violent game laws in eight other states and two cities, some might be worried that the Supreme Court could only be interested in hearing this case so it can overturn this uniform legal opinion. But Smith said the high court’s decision doesn’t necessarily bode well or ill for the industry.
"I think there are examples where the court take cases where there’s no conflict about 30 percent of the time," Smith said. "One possible explanation is that they’ve seen nine cases in a row in four circuits and they just disagree with all of that. The second explanation is, as the cases have come up through the circuit court, they realized there’s an enormous amount of conflict between federal judges and state policy makers and that they want to put this issue to rest."
While the industry included two to three hours of gameplay footage showing the artistic expression of some violent games with their briefs, Smith laughingly wondered in the Supreme Court justices might need some further education on how video games actually work.
"This happened back in the Reno case in the mid-’90s that I was involved in," he said. "This was a first amendment case in 1997, and it was essentially true that most Supreme Court justices hadn’t gone on the Internet to see what a web site looked like. So we had to get a monitor hooked up to a computer in the library set up and connected to the Internet to explain to the justices what the Internet was. So I wouldn’t at all be surprised if there was an Xbox in there and we had to show the justices of the Supreme Court an example of a game."
– Kyle Orland
Kyle Orland has written about games professionally for over a decade. For more information about Kyle’s work, visit kyleorland.com.