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Video Games Deserve Free Speech Protection, Groups Argue

The U.S. Supreme Court has to decide whether violent video games are different from other forms of expressive media.
In preparation for November arguments before the Supreme Court, two advocacy groups are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a California law that bans the sale of violent video games to anyone under the age of 18, requires labels on violent video games, and imposes a fine of $1,000 on anyone who rents of sells such a game to a minor.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and The Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF) on Monday said that they had filed an amicus brief with the court arguing that industry video game content rating systems are enough to protect minors and that video games deserve the full free speech protection afforded to other media like books, music, theater productions, and films.

"The government can't regulate speech content, even to protect children, if there are reasonably effective private rating systems and parental control tools that don't interfere with our First Amendment rights," said EFF senior staff attorney Lee Tien in a statement.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco thought as much in February, 2009, when it struck down California's violent video game law.

The law was signed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October 2005 but was never implemented; it was immediately challenged by the video game industry.

Despite rulings from a District Court in 2007 and the 9th Circuit Court that the law violated the U.S. Constitution, rulings that affirmed free speech protection for video games, the impulse to treat video games as distinct from other media remains strong, both in the government and in the private sector.

In its recently disclosed App Store Guidelines for example, Apple states that it treats iOS apps -- most of which are games -- differently from other media like books or songs in terms of allowable content. Apple has the right to make such a distinction if it chooses; whether the government can do so is the issue that the Supreme Court will confront in November.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has argued that the law is necessary to protect minors, as he did in a statement issued in April, when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.