The government cannot ban the sale or rental of violent video games to minors as this would violate free-speech rights, the Supreme Court said on Monday in its first ruling in a video game case.
By a 7-2 vote, the high court struck down a California law, which also imposed strict video game labeling requirements, as unconstitutional. It said video games, like books, plays and movies, deserve free-speech protection.
The ruling was a victory for video game publishers, distributors and sellers, including the Entertainment Software Association. Its members include Disney Interactive Studios, Electronic Arts, Microsoft Corp and Sony Computer Entertainment America.
The trade association hailed the ruling as a historic and complete win for free-speech rights and the creative freedom of artists and storytellers everywhere.
Today, the Supreme Court affirmed what we have always known -- that free speech protections apply every bit as much to video games as they do to other forms of creative expression like books, movies and music, said Michael Gallagher, the association's president.
The law, adopted in 2005, has never taken effect because of the legal challenge.
It defines a violent video game as one that depicts killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being. Retailers who sell or rent a violent video game to a minor could be fined as much as $1,000.
The U.S. video game industry makes about $10.5 billion in annual sales. More than two-thirds of U.S. households include at least one person who plays video games, according to industry statistics.
Six other states have adopted similar laws, and all had previously been struck down in court.
The Supreme Court's majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, said there was no tradition in the United States of restricting children's access to depictions of violence.
SCALIA CITES HOMER, GRIMM'S FAIRY TALES
He cited a number of books for children that depict violence.
Grimm's Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just desserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers 'til she fell dead on the floor,' Scalia said.
In truth, the California Act is the latest in a long series of failed attempts to censor violent entertainment for minors, he said in summarizing part of the ruling from the bench on the last day of the court's 2010-11 term.
Before video games came cheap novels depicting crime ... motion pictures, comic books, television and music lyrics -- all of which were blamed by some for juvenile delinquency, he said.
The ruling marked the first time the Supreme Court has considered whether violent video games sold to children can be treated the same as sexually explicit material.
Scalia agreed with opponents of the law who said parents, not government, should decide what games their children can buy and play.
He rejected the argument by California lawmakers who cited several studies that suggested violent video games can be linked to aggressive and anti-social behavior in children.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer dissented, and Parents Television Council president Tim Winter denounced the decision.
This ruling replaces the authority of parents with the economic interests of the video game industry, he said, adding: Retailers can now openly, brazenly sell games with unspeakable violence and adult content even to the youngest of children.
But John Riccitello, CEO of Electronic Arts, a major video game publisher, said, Everybody wins on this decision -- the court has affirmed the constitutional rights of game developers; adults keep the right to decide what's appropriate in their houses; and store owners can sell games without fear of criminal prosecution, he said.
The Supreme Court case is Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, No. 08-1448.
(Additional reporting by Liana Baker in New York and Jill Serjeant in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham and Vicki Allen)