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WASHINGTON – Some video games are clearly too violent for minors. But is it legal to ban their sale? Apparently not.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors Monday, a ruling that could profoundly affect the multibillion-dollar video game industry.
California wanted to prohibit the sale or rental of violent games to anyone under 18. But federal judges have declared that the law violates First Amendment free speech rights, and the trade industry argued that the law was too broad.
The court voted 7-2 against the law, with justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer dissenting.
"Video games qualify for First Amendment protection," the opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, said. "Like protected books, plays and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium."
The decision continued, "[T]he State wishes to create a wholly new category of content-based regulation that is permissible only for speech directed at children. That is unprecedented and mistaken."
California lawmakers passed the 2005 measure in an effort to help parents keep violent video games away from children, with the state citing studies showing a linkage between minors who play the games and later violent activities. The law was already invalidated by a pair of lower federal courts.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a group that helps video game manufacturers to self-police content in games for parents, applauded the ruling.
“Today’s decision acknowledges the value and effectiveness of the ESRB rating system, the Federal Trade Commission’s positive assessment of our self-regulatory regime, and the latest research showing that game retailers overwhelmingly enforce their voluntary store policies regarding the sale of Mature-rated games," said ESRB president Patricia Vance.
"In striking this law the Court has made clear that the video game industry effectively empowers parents to be the ones to decide which games are right for their children," Vance said.
In arguments before the court in November, critics of the law, including the trade association representing the video game industry, said they believed that the law was too broad and violated First Amendment speech protections, Fox News reported at the time.
Several violent video games have made headlines in recent months. "Bulletstorm," which features over-the-top violence including dismemberment, strong profanity and crude sexual innuendos was censored for the German market yet available in the United States.
And the recently released "Duke Nukem Forever" earned widespread cries of sexism from gamers and women's rights-groups across the Internet when it was revealed the game would feature a "capture the babe mode," requiring gamers to abduct women and give them a "reassuring slap" if they freak out.
More than 46 million American households have at least one video-game system, with the industry bringing in at least $18 billion in 2010.
News wires contributed to this report.