(CN) – The 9th Circuit on Friday struck down a California law barring businesses from selling or renting violent video games to minors and imposing age-based labeling requirements. A three-judge panel said the state failed to consider less-restrictive alternatives or show how the restrictions protect children.
In October 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill barring the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, in the hopes of curbing psychological harm to youth and reducing their aggressive behavior.
The Act characterizes a “violent” game as one “in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.” A violent game “enables the player to virtually inflict serious injury upon images of human beings or characters with substantially human characteristics in a manner which is especially heinous, cruel or depraved in that it involves torture or serious physical abuse to the victim,” according to the Act.
The law also requires violent video games to “be labeled with a solid white ’18’ outlined in black” that must appear on the front packaging and be “no less than 2 inches by 2 inches.”
Before the law went into effect, the Video Game Software Dealers Association and the Entertainment Software Association sued various state officials, claiming the Act would unconstitutionally stifle their speech.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte sided with the plaintiffs and enjoined the state from enforcing the law.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit dismissed the state’s appeal, saying the Act is subject to strict scrutiny and not the “variable obscenity” standard from Ginsberg v. New York. In Ginsberg, the Supreme Court allowed New York to ban the sale of “girlie magazines” to minors, even though the material was not considered obscene for adults.
Judge Callahan explained that the Supreme Court “has carefully limited obscenity to sexual content,” and that circuit courts “have resisted attempts to broaden obscenity to cover violent material.”
The 9th Circuit also opted for the strict-scrutiny standard, rejecting California’s insistence on the Ginsberg standard. “The State, in essence, asks us to create a new category of non-protected material based on its depiction of violence,” Callahan wrote.
Under the strict-scrutiny standard, the court ruled, the state failed to show how the Act would shield children.
“None of the research establishes or suggests a causal link between minors playing violent video games and actual psychological or neurological harm and inferences to that effect would not be reasonable,” Callahan wrote.
“We hold that the State has not demonstrated that less restrictive alternative means are not available.” The court mentioned parental controls and a voluntary rating system as potential alternatives.
Finally, the court rejected the labeling requirement as unnecessary. If the Act is invalid, there is no state-mandated age threshold for buying or renting violent games, negating the need for an “18” label.