Federal court rules violent-game ban unconstitutional

US District Court of Seattle rules that a state law forbidding the sale of games showing violence against law enforcement officers violates the First Amendment.

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The long story of the state of Washington's controversial law banning the sale of violent games to minors came to an end today--with an important victory for the game industry. Judge Robert Lasnik of the US District Court in Seattle ruled the law unconstitutional under the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech.

Rejecting the state's argument that violence in games should fall under the state's obscenity law, Judge Lasnik noted that similar portrayals of violence can be seen in literature, art, and the media and that "there is no indication that such expressions have ever been excluded from the protections of the First Amendment."

Passed by the Washington state legislature in March 2003 and signed by Governor Gary Locke that May, law HB1009 was immediately challenged on the grounds that it was unconstitutional by the Interactive Digital Software Association (now the Entertainment Software Association) and was subsequently blocked by Judge Lasnik. The law sought to ban the sale of games that showed violence against law enforcement officers to anyone under the age of 17. Retailers caught breaking the law would be fined $500.

Addressing the state's concern that violence against police officers in games translates to violence in real life, Judge Lasnik determined that "the...belief that video games cause violence, particularly violence against law enforcement officers, is not based on reasonable inferences drawn from substantial evidence." He also pointed out that the definition of violence against law enforcement officers was impossibly vague, citing such examples as the possessed cops in Freedom Force, enemy officers in Splinter Cell, or games built around Looney Toons, The Simpsons, or The Dukes of Hazzard.

Doug Lowenstein, president of the ESA, praised the ruling, saying that it is just another example of a number of rulings "that establish video games as constitutionally protected forms of expression." Lowenstein added that he hopes Washington and other state governments will now focus on further implementing the ESA's self-regulating Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB).

The Washington Retail Association, the Video Software Dealers Association, the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association, the International Game Developers Association, Hollywood Video, and the ESA jointly filed the lawsuit.

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