Court Rejects Minnesota Youth Video Game Restriction

Sam Karnick Heartland Institute
Published May 1, 2008

A federal appeals court has upheld a permanent injunction against a Minnesota law intended to discourage children under 17 from buying or renting video games classified as violent.

The law would have imposed a $25 fine on those under 17 who rented or bought video games rated M (Mature) or AO (Adults Only) and required stores to post signs informing customers of the fines.

The March 17 opinion of the three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, written by Judge Roger Wollman, upheld the injunction granted in July 2006 and will prevent the law from going into effect.

First Amendment Challenge

The court challenge began just after the Minnesota Restricted Video Games Act was signed into law in May 2006. The Entertainment Software Association and Entertainment Merchants Association challenged the measure on First Amendment grounds.

The state argued the video games harm minors psychologically and cause violence and aggressive behavior, but the district court “held that violent video games are protected speech even for children,” the appeals court decision noted. As a result, the state had to prove such harm empirically, not just through “anecdote and supposition,” in the appellate court’s words.

Despite their “intuitive (dare we say commonsense) feelings regarding the effect that the extreme violence portrayed in the above-described video games may well have upon the psychological well-being of minors,” the appellate court noted legal precedent required it “to hold that, having failed to come forth with incontrovertible proof of a causal relationship between the exposure to such violence and subsequent psychological dysfunction, the State has not satisfied its evidentiary burden.”

Rich Taylor, senior vice president of communications for the Entertainment Software Association, agreed with the court’s assessment of the evidence. “The court underscored what others also determined after exhaustively reviewing all relevant research: There is no causal link between video games and real-life violence.”

Court Unhappy with Precedent

The court expressed clear dissatisfaction with the legal precedent, however, writing, “The requirement of such a high level of proof may reflect a refined estrangement from reality, but apply it we must.”

Edward Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, shared the court’s discomfort about its own decision.

“The notion that children have a First Amendment right of access to obscenely violent video games shows how far the liberal activist judicial decision-making of recent decades has strayed from the actual Constitution,” Whelan said. “We need more justices and judges who will practice judicial restraint and let laws like the Minnesota Restricted Video Games Act operate.”

Parental Control Urged

Adam Thierer, director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, says education and parental control are more effective than laws restricting video game sales and rentals.

“State and local lawmakers need to stop wasting taxpayer dollars with unnecessary regulatory enactments and fruitless lawsuits aimed at censoring video games,” Thierer said. “All that money could have been plowed into educational efforts to help explain to parents and kids how to use the excellent voluntary ratings systems or console-based parental control tools that are at their disposal.”

Taylor agreed. “We maintain a deep level of respect for legislators’ concerns and believe that with the ESRB ratings, parental education, and the parental controls available on all new video game consoles, there are myriad ways that those concerned can ensure that children play appropriate, parent-approved computer and video games.

Taylor continued, “we believe a combination of parental choice and parental control is the only legal, sensible, and, most importantly, effective way to empower parents, and we dedicate ourselves to working with all parties to accomplish this goal.”

S.T. Karnick ([email protected]) is research director of The Heartland Institute and senior editor of Infotech & Telecom News.

For more information …

Appeals Court decision, Entertainment Software Association; Entertainment Merchants Association, Appellees, v. Lori Swanson, in her official capacity as Attorney General of the State of Minnesota: