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Media groups file Supreme Court brief in video game case

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend of the court brief today urging the U.S. Supreme…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend of the court brief today urging the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm a lower court ruling that prevents a state from banning the sale or rental of video games to minors based on the games' violent content. The brief was joined by five other media organizations.

At issue in the case is a California law passed in 2005 that prohibits the selling or renting of a “violent video game” to a minor, punishable by a civil penalty of up to $1,000. The Video Software Dealers Association and Entertainment Software Association challenged the law in a California federal district court and won, stopping the statute from taking effect.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco affirmed the district court’s ruling, declaring that the California statute violated the First Amendment right to free speech. Drawing on previous Supreme Court case law, the Ninth Circuit ruled that restricting the sale of video games on the basis of their violent content was an impermissible government restriction on expression.

California government officials appealed the Ninth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court in 2009. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case earlier this year, shortly after deciding in United States v. Stevens that a federal law prohibiting certain depictions of animal cruelty violated the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

The media group’s brief asks the Supreme Court to affirm the Ninth Circuit’s decision. The media groups argue that California’s attempt to regulate depictions of violence in video games, like the federal government’s attempt to ban depictions of animal cruelty, impermissibly infringes on the constitutional rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Depriving expression of First Amendment protection because of its violent content would have serious consequences to the reporting of news in a violent world, the brief argues.

The media group’s brief also places the challenged California law within the greater historical context of past government attempts to regulate expressive conduct in new forms of media. The brief asserts that, from dime store novels in the 1800’s to comic books and motion pictures this past century, the content of new media has often engendered calls for legislative regulation, commonly based on claims of harm to viewers or listeners. The media groups maintain that such attempts have failed both in the courts and, over time, in the realm of public opinion as society’s attitudes change.

"Throughout history, every time a new form of media has been created, there have been efforts to ban the way some people use it," said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. "The Supreme Court should protect this form of expression and reaffirm the decisions of the lower courts."

The brief was submitted by the Reporters Committee, the American Society of News Editors, the First Amendment Project, the National Press Photographers Association, the Radio Television Digital News Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Student Press Law Center.

The Supreme Court has set oral argument in the case for November 2, 2010.