PRESS RELEASE: SPLC Joins Media Groups Asking Supreme Court To Protect Youth First Amendment Rights in Video Gaming Case

The Student Press Law Center joined a friend-of-the-court brief filed today with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting a federal appeals-court ruling that struck down California’s ban on the sale of violent video games to minors as a violation of the First Amendment.

The brief was authored by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on behalf of a coalition of leading media organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of News Editors, the National Press Photographers Association, the Radio-Television Digital News Association and the First Amendment Project, in addition to the SPLC.

The case, Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, is scheduled for argument before the Court on Nov. 2.

In February 2009, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a 2005 California law outlawing the sale or rental of violent video games to customers under 18, and requiring that games classified as violent be labeled with an “18” insignia with a slash, was unconstitutional. The court held that the state of California had failed to show the compelling justification necessary to impose a content-based restriction on speech, noting the lack of reliable scientific evidence that exposure to violent images in games is psychologically harmful.

The SPLC and other media groups are urging the Court to affirm the 9th Circuit’s ruling, and to refrain from carving out violent content as an unprotected category of speech comparable to obscene sexual content. In the brief, the groups warn that a ruling in the state’s favor could compromise the rights of minors to receive legitimately newsworthy information about violent events.

“While California’s legislation is aimed at restricting the sale of violent video games only to minors, the effects of such a law will be similar to an outright ban on violent speech, because it will open the door for other challenges to its protected status,” the organizations contend in the amicus brief. The brief points out that, just last term, the Court refused in the case of United States v. Stevens to rule that depictions of animal cruelty were categorically unprotected speech, and urges the Court to apply the same reasoning to the California prohibition. The brief points out that many forms of entertainment — from detective novels to comic books — have been denounced as “harmful to minors,” only to gain public acceptance as critics’ dire warnings proved unfounded.

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte, an attorney, said, “It would be extraordinarily dangerous for the Supreme Court to send a signal that legislatures and schools will inevitably misinterpret as ‘open season’ on students’ rights. Unfortunately, experience teaches us that government officials cannot be trusted to exercise restraint and good judgment when given authority over what minors can read, write and say. If the Court were to rule that violent speech is constitutionally unprotected when sold to minors, too many schools would interpret that as a license to ban any reference to violence in student journalistic publications. We know that this will happen, because overreactions of this kind have happened every time the Supreme Court has addressed the First Amendment rights of young people.”

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics.