A federal judge Thursday struck down Washington state’s ban on selling some violent video games to minors, calling it a violation of free speech.
U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik wrote that depictions of violence have been used throughout the country’s history to convey important social messages, and that the Supreme Court has never upheld bans on violent depictions under obscenity laws.
The state’s ban sought to prevent minors from buying or renting games that portray “realistic or photographic-like depictions of aggressive conflict” in which the players kill or injure law enforcement officers. The law included a provision to fine retailers $500 for violations.
Lasnik said the law was too narrow because it arbitrarily banned violence against police officers but not other depictions of violence, and too broad because it was unclear what games would fall under the ban.
“Would a game built around ‘The Simpsons’ or the ‘Looney Tunes’ characters be ‘realistic’ enough to trigger the act?” he wrote. “The real problem is that (a store) clerk might know everything there is to know about the game and yet not be able to determine whether it can legally be sold to a minor.”
'Statute was unconstitutionally vague'
To obey the law, he said, store clerks would tend to be overly cautious in selling games to minors and game makers would tend to be overly cautious in designing them — resulting in a chilling effect on free speech.
The game industry welcomed the ruling and said it will continue to encourage retailers to voluntarily refuse to sell mature-rated games to children under 17, as movie theaters voluntarily check IDs for youngsters heading into R-rated movies.
“We were obviously really gratified by the ruling,” said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Entertainment Software Association. “The judge shared our concerns that the statute was unconstitutionally vague.”
A telephone call for comment left after business hours for Gary Larson, a spokesman for the state attorney general, was not immediately returned.
The state argued that the law focused on the state’s compelling interest in curbing hostile and anti-social behavior among youths, including violence and aggression toward law enforcement officers.
The ban never took effect. Lasnik barred its implementation last summer until he had a chance to review its constitutionality.
Lasnik acknowledged there is evidence the interactive qualities, first-person identification and repetitive nature of video games makes them potentially more harmful to minors than other forms of media.
However, he wrote, “there has been no showing that exposure to video games that ’trivialize violence against law enforcement officers’ is likely to lead to actual violence against such officers.”