Court Ruling Makes Policing Content Difficult

Posted March 6, 2013 at 2:56pm

Any law that attempts to limit the amount of violence in media would have to pass a high bar: the First Amendment.

Since the Supreme Court ruled against the state of California in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association in 2011, advocates for curbing violence in media have faced a tough road. The court’s 7-2 decision struck down a California law that banned the sale of video games deemed excessively violent to minors.

Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia was adamant that the United States has no tradition of monitoring violent content for children. As evidence, he pointed to the gruesome incidents contained in such children’s classics as “Cinderella” and “Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” The court also rejected arguments that the interactive nature of video games makes them particularly harmful, comparing them to “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.

The court found that the obscenity exception to the First Amendment applies only to sexual content, not violence. Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer disagreed in separate, dissenting opinions, while Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts argued in a joint concurring opinion that the California law was imprecise and didn’t pass muster. Alito also called those concerned about the issue “unduly fearful,” opining that “violent video games really present no serious problem.”

The court’s decision means that any limits on media violence enacted by Congress or the Obama administration would face a swift, and in all probability successful, challenge from the entertainment industry. Civil liberties and free-speech advocates are also likely to oppose such rules.