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Game Over for Limits on Violent Video Games

This is the VOA Special English Technology Report.

America's video game industry was the winner in a decision last week by the United States Supreme Court.

The justices rejected a law in California that banned the sale or rental of violent video games to people under eighteen. They said the two thousand five law violated the free speech guarantee in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The vote was seven to two.

The court decided that video games are a protected form of creative expression like books, plays and movies. Paul McGreal, dean of the University of Dayton law school in Ohio, says California did not see gaming that way.

The US Supreme Court says California cannot ban the rental or sale of violent video games -- like this Grand Theft Auto game -- to children
The US Supreme Court says California cannot ban the rental or sale of violent video games -- like this Grand Theft Auto game -- to children

PAUL McGREAL: “The state of California tried to argue that this was not speech, it was more of an activity because children interact and play with the video games, and so it’s not traditional speech like a book or like a magazine.

California lawmakers argued that violent games were especially harmful to children. But the court said they were no more harmful than the violence in other forms of media. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion. He pointed to the violence in fairy tales like "Snow White" and "Cinderella" and in cartoons.

Professor McGreal says the court sees its job as only to decide what is and is not legally protected speech.

PAUL McGREAL: “The Supreme Court said we’re going to decide what counts as speech and then leave it up to private individuals, not the government, to decide what speech they want to see and want to view. We don’t want to get the Supreme Court into making fine distinctions about what is better than others, because that will lead us down a slippery slope. Once you start deciding that, what’s to stop the government from saying that, for example, Grimm’s fairy tales themselves are too violent, or that particular books should be banned?”

In fact, from nineteen fifteen to nineteen fifty-two, the Supreme Court permitted censorship of movies for fear they could be "used for evil."

Today the film and music industries have voluntary rating systems, and so does the video game industry. For example, extremely violent games are rated "M" for mature. Abby Halloran, a manager at a Gamestop store in Clinton, Maryland, says these are meant for ages seventeen and older.

ABBY HALLORAN: “If there is blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content -- anything like that, use of drugs and alcohol -- those are all M-rated.

Only five percent of the more than sixteen hundred games rated last year were rated M. Still, Ms. Halloran says M-rated games like Call of Duty, Halo and Fallout are the most popular games in the store. Children need a parent’s permission to buy them.

ABBY HALLORAN: “If they don’t have a parent with them they can’t buy it. If their parent says it’s okay we’re obligated to sell it to them. But we’re obligated to ask the parent and explain to them all of the reasons why it’s a more mature rated game. And if they still agree with it then we’ll sell it to them. But the majority of the time when we tell them what’s in it, they don’t.

And that's the VOA Special English Technology Report, written by June Simms. I'm Steve Ember.