By BRENT KENDALL
WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide the constitutionality of a California law that seeks to ban the sale of violent videogames to minors.
Two lower courts struck down the law as an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech.
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Above, a scene from ‘Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned,’ by Take-Two Interactive’s Rockstar Games.
How the high court rules could affect videogame makers such as Activision Blizzard Inc., producer of “Call of Duty,” and Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.’s Rockstar Games, which makes “Grand Theft Auto.” The case could also have implications for the broader entertainment industry, specifically for producers of violent movies and television shows.
Last week], the court took a broad view of the First Amendment when it struck down a federal law banning depictions of animal cruelty. The court said the law was too sweeping in restricting speech.
California argued in its petition to the Supreme Court that lawmakers should be able to ban sales of violent videogames to those younger than 18 just as they can restrict the sale of sexual material to minors.
The state said violent videogames are “a new, modern threat to children” that cause psychological harm and make minors more likely to exhibit violent or aggressive behavior.
Two trade associations challenged the law before it went into effect, arguing that videogames are a modern form of artistic expression entitled to First Amendment protection.
Michael D. Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association, which represents U.S. computer-game and videogame publishers, said the industry’s voluntary rating system has successfully informed consumers and parents about the games’ content.
Entertainment lawyer Stephen Smith, of the Greenberg Glusker law firm in Los Angeles, said games rated as “mature,” such as “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto,” are some of the industry’s biggest sellers. He said the loss of teen customers could make it hard for companies to justify large budgets for creating and marketing such games. But he also said restricting sales wouldn’t be easy because many games are purchased and played online.
It isn’t clear which games would be affected by California’s law, which defines a violent video game as one that “includes killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.”
In a statement, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. said: “It is time to allow California’s common-sense law to go into effect and help parents protect their children from violent video games.”
The Supreme Court’s decision to consider the case came as something of a surprise because lower courts have been unanimous in striking down laws similar to California’s.
A federal trial judge in San Jose and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals each ruled that California didn’t have sufficient evidence to support the claim that violent videogames harmed minors. The courts also said there were other, less restrictive ways to prevent minors from playing the games, such as parental controls on some gaming systems.
The case is Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Assn., 08-1448. Oral arguments will take place during the court’s next term, which begins in October.
“This is an important issue with national implications, particularly in light of the growing evidence that these games harm minors and that industry self-regulation through the existing rating system has proven ineffective,” the state said in its petition.
Write to Brent Kendall at email@example.com