Court hears arguments on violent video games

The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 4:47 PM

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Tuesday expressed sympathy for a California law that aims to keep children from buying ultra-violent video games in which players maim, kill or sexually assault images of people.

But justices seemed closely split on whether the restrictions are constitutional.

The high court has been reluctant to carve out exceptions to the First Amendment, striking down a ban on videos showing graphic violence to animals earlier this year.

California officials argue that they should be allowed to limit minors' ability to pick up violent video games on their own at retailers because of the purported damage they cause to the mental development of children. Some justices appeared to agree.

"We do not have a tradition in this country of telling children they should watch people actively hitting schoolgirls over the head with a shovel so they'll beg with mercy, being merciless and decapitating them, shooting people in the leg so they fall down," Chief Justice John Roberts said.

Roberts decried that one game lets a player "pour gasoline over them, set them on fire and urinate on them." "We protect children from that," he said. "We don't actively expose them to that."

California's 2005 law would prohibit anyone under 18 from buying or renting games that give players the option of "killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being." Parents would be able to buy the games for their children, but retailers who sell directly to minors would face fines of up to $1,000 for each game sold.

That means that children would need an adult to get games like "Postal 2," the first-person shooter by developer Running With Scissors that features the ability to light unarmed bystanders on fire. It would also apply to the popular "Grand Theft Auto IV," a third-person shoot-'em-up from Rockstar Games that allows gamers to portray carjacking, gun-toting gangsters.

Some Supreme Court justices wondered where the regulation would stop if they allowed California's law to go forward.

"What about films?" asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "What about comic books?"

Justice Antonin Scalia wondered if movies showing drinking and smoking might be next.

"I am concerned with the First Amendment, which says Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech," he said. "It has never been understood that the freedom of speech did not include portrayals of violence. You are asking us to create a whole new prohibition which the American people never ratified when they ratified the First Amendment."

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