California makes its case in Supreme Court gaming fight

State submits written arguments in support of violent game prohibitions; oral arguments expected this fall.

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California has taken the first swing in its Supreme Court fight against the gaming industry, as this week State Senator Leland Yee announced the filing of the state's initial arguments supporting a ban on the sale of violent games to minors. Yee expects oral arguments in the case to be heard this fall.

Justice is blind, hence the need for oral arguments.
Justice is blind, hence the need for oral arguments.

"I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will help us give parents a valuable tool to protect children from the harmful effects of excessively violent, interactive video games," Yee said in a prepared statement. "The Supreme Court has never heard a case dealing with violent video games, and considering the precedent set by the high court, I am confident that they will uphold our law as Constitutional."

Among the precedents he referred to are rulings saying that states can limit minors' access to harmful materials like pornography, alcohol, and tobacco. The written argument also says that many states have enacted laws regulating both sexually explicit and violent material to minors, and that society has an understanding that both influences be equally harmful to children.

"This is further reflected in the fact that violence can strip constitutional protection from otherwise protected material," according to the state's argument. "Sexually explicit material that would be otherwise protected for distribution to adults can be considered obscene given the violent nature of its depiction. No rational justification exists for treating violent material so vastly different than sexual material under the First Amendment when reviewing restrictions on distribution to minors."

Signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 but challenged in court before it could take effect, 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 Rating Board (ESRB) rating.

In 2007, a circuit court judge struck down the law as unconstitutional but admitted he was "sympathetic to what the legislature sought to do." Last year, an appellate court judge backed up the original ruling. Months before the appellate court's decision, in an appearance on GameSpot's HotSpot podcast, Yee predicted that the dispute would be pushed to the Supreme Court.

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