June 28, 2011

Are Violent Videos Free Speech?

I’m appalled at the Supreme Court’s ruling* that extremely violent videos are entitled to First Amendment protection. Oy! Can you hear our Founding Fathers writhing in their graves?

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia claims a state's right to protect minors, “does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.” We’re not talking about exposure, ladies and gentlemen; we’re talking about active participation. 

Case in point: Postal 2, in which players can hit a woman in the face with the shovel, then decapitate and bludgeon her as she’s bleeding. Games like this one invite children to kill, maim, dismember, and sexually assault.  Just how does this fall under the guise of free speech?

I don’t buy the Court’s insistence that America “has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence.” No tradition? What do you call movie ratings? Even the video industry has its own rating system.

The Court conveniently rejects research showing that minors are influenced by what they see. Obviously none of the jurors has every worked in a public school. A half-dozen of my primary students were once caught dry humping each other in the boys’ bathroom. Where did they get the idea? From watching Brian (the dog) in Family Guy. Not influenced? Get real.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a journalist and fervent supporter of the First Amendment. Its guarantees allow me to express this dissenting opinion. In fact, as Scalia himself acknowledges, "The Free Speech Clause exists principally to protect discourse on public matters  . . ." 

So how do violent video games merit protection under that clause? We're not talking about speech or the press. We're talking about a medium that didn't even exist in the 1700s. Even Justice Alito, who concurred with the majority, warns about jumping to "the conclusion that new technology is fundamentally the same as some older thing with which we are familiar".

This ruling went far beyond what the writers of the Constitution ever intended. Kudos to Justices Thomas and Breyer for disagreeing, particularly since Breyer acknowledged the relevance of studies concluding that psychological harm results from playing such games. 

Your thoughts?

*You can read the ruling at http://www.supremecourt.gov; go to the far right for "Recent Decisions" and click on 6/27/11 - Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn. 


  1. This is another example of how our lives and world have changed since the country was founded. All the principles and laws then were based on what existed then. Who could have envisioned technology or the kind of automatic weapons that exist in today's world. Do we cling to the original rules even if they don't make sense in changed circumstances? I am torn, only because it becomes dangerous when we draw the line. Who gets to decide where to draw the line? Here. No, here. No, here. The Supreme Court apparently. I would like these videos NOT to be free speech, but I don't know for sure that they aren't. What I would really like is for the world to be a place in which people don't think such things up.

  2. I don't know what to say other than I agree with every word of your post. When I read this ruling I was furious. In fact, I'm still seething.

    I don't understand how these games deserve protection under the First Amendment, but that doesn't even matter. We are talking about children here, people. Children! I've seen video games where *I've* had to turn my head away from the violence. Of course I believe in protecting First Amendment Rights, but that protection doesn't override a more important societal obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

    Personally, I find the slippery slope mentality that governs First Amendment Rights terrifying. What can you say about a society where the "rules" are more important than the welfare of the people they govern?

  3. Melissa: I have no problem with someone drawing the line. The Constitution is pretty clear about free speech relating to "matter of public discourse". Don't see how games that encourage murder, mutilation, and rape qualify.

    VR: Agreed. What's particularly infuriating to me is reading how Scalia compared violence in books to these games. Apples and oranges, people!


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