A division of opinions on the Supreme Court leaves open a door for states to regulate such games.
To curb violence, a society must find ways to deal with the factors that drive people to commit violence. On Monday, the Supreme Court decided that a California law that would have restricted the sale of violent video games to minors should not be one of those ways.
While the vote was 7-to-2, the majority was split on their reasons for the ruling. And the usual liberal and conservative groupings were not very much in play.
Those divisions reflect the difficulty of balancing free speech against government efforts to protect children from the obnoxious influences of increasingly graphic media. The mixed ruling also leaves open a legal door for state legislatures to craft better laws than California’s.
That state’s law was too vague in defining depictions of violence in video games. The state was also inconsistent in claiming that it was acting on behalf of parents but then letting parents decide if their children could use violent games.
Most of all, the evidence isn’t clear from numerous studies that violent games are a direct cause of violence. Indeed, youth violence has been in decline even as video games have been on the rise with gorier, more realistic, and highly interactive graphics.
Five of the justices relied on the idea that violent depictions for children have such a long tradition – from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Harry Potter – with little history of restrictions. Legislators need to come up with compelling data and a strong state interest to override the First Amendment guarantee of free speech that applies even to children.