California game law struck down...again

US Appeals Court upholds 2007 decision blocking state law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors.

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Antigaming legislation has been struck yet another blow today. The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court's decision that declared as unconstitutional California's law preventing the sale of violent video games to minors. According to the appeals-court ruling, bill AB1179, signed into California law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, violated the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.

AB1179 author Leland Yee.
AB1179 author Leland Yee.

"We hold that the Act, as presumptively invalid content-based restriction on speech, is subject to strict scrutiny and not the 'variable obscenity' standard from Ginsberg v. New York," the US Court of Appeals ruling read. "Applying strict scrutiny, we hold that the Act violates rights protected by the First Amendment because the State has not demonstrated a compelling interest, has not tailored the restriction to its alleged compelling interest, and there exist less-restrictive means that would further the State's expressed interest."

Originally penned by California Senator Leland Yee, the bill sought to ban the sale or rental of "violent video games" to children. A "violent" game was defined as a "game in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being." Under the law, retailers that sold such games would be subject to a $1,000 fine.

The bill would also have required "violent" video games to bear a two-inch-by-two-inch sticker with a "solid white '18' outlined in black" on their front covers. That's more than twice the size of the labels that currently adorn game-box covers and display the familiar Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rating.

"We are extremely gratified by the court's rejection of video game censorship by the state of California," said Entertainment Merchants Association president and CEO Bo Andersen in a statement. "The ruling vindicates what we have said since the bill that became this law was introduced: Ratings education, retailer ratings enforcement, and control of game play by parents are the appropriate responses to concerns about video game content."

Andersen also challenged proponents of the legislation to not pursue further legal recourse with the US Supreme Court. "The state should not acquiesce in this demand, particularly in light of its budget difficulties," said Andersen. "The state has already wasted too many tax dollars, at least $283,000 at last count, on this ill-advised, and ultimately doomed, attempt at state-sponsored nannyism."

In 2008, California was ordered to reimburse the Entertainment Software Association $282,794 for legal fees associated with the case. The state is currently facing a crushing budget crisis, thanks to a mounting deficit that some state officials say could hit $42 billion by 2010.

For his part, Yee was undeterred by the Appeals Court ruling. Reiterating sentiments expressed to GameSpot in November, California Senator Leland Yee issued a statement bemoaning the court's decision and voicing optimism over the case's prospects were it to be escalated to the US' top court.

"California's violent video game law properly seeks to protect children from the harmful effects of excessively violent, interactive video games," said Yee. "While I am deeply disappointed in today's ruling, we should not stop our efforts to assist parents in keeping these harmful video games out of the hands of children. I believe this law will inevitably be upheld as Constitutional by the US Supreme Court."

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