Court weighs violent video games vs. free speech in California case
SACRAMENTO - Children in California could once again be prohibited from buying or renting violent video games without a parent's permission if a federal appeals court overturns a lower court's ruling.
A state law passed in 2005 that tried to limit access to violent games is being reconsidered by a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The state law, which prohibited the sale or rental of the games to anyone under 18 and required the games to be clearly labeled, was struck down last year by a lower court.
Video game manufacturers had argued that it violated minors' First Amendment rights.
Courts in several other states have struck down similar laws.
California Deputy Attorney General Zackery Morazzini asked the federal appeals panel to uphold the law, saying violent games are just as obscene as the sexually explicit material that has been kept from children in the past by a US Supreme Court decision.
Morazzini said states have every right to help parents who want to keep their children from playing violent video games.
The Video Software Dealers Association and Entertainment Software Association say imposing restrictions on video games could lead to states limiting access to other material under the guise of protecting children.
"Maybe a state will say we shouldn't let you sell, without a parent's permission, books about homosexuality or sex education or birth control," Paul Smith, the industry's attorney, told reporters after the hearing. "I think it's a very scary prospect."
The judges appeared to agree, saying that upholding California's law would be an expansion of federally regulated materials that could open the door to other restrictions by states.
"Aren't you asking this court to go where no court has gone before?" Appellate Judge Consuelo Callahan asked Morazzini.
"Is there anything out of limits for the Legislature to prohibit to minors?" Judge Alex Kozinski asked. "What about games where people eat unhealthy foods and get fat?"
When asked by Judge Sidney Thomas about any differences between a violent video game and a violent book, Morazzini argued that the games are interactive and require a child to participate in the violence.
In a statement released after the hearing, State Senator Leland Yee, a child psychologist who wrote the 2005 law, cited studies that show violent games can be linked to aggression, antisocial behavior and desensitization to violence.
Yee said he hoped the panel would "empower parents with the ultimate decision over whether or not their children play in a world of violence and murder."
But the video game industry argued that California has failed to prove there is a connection between such games and psychological or other harm to children.
Smith also said video game manufacturers already have a voluntary rating system for their games and should not be required to label them.
Kozinski questioned why the industry should not be forced to label video games, saying parents could still choose to buy whatever games they wanted for their children.
"I don't see why this is a big censorship thing," Kozinski said.
The appeals court is expected to make its ruling in the next few months.
The case ultimately could be brought to the US Supreme Court.