First Amendment Attack

California congressman introduces legislation to restrict access to video games.

Last month's federal district court decision denying First Amendment protection to video games already is bearing fruit. Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation that would restrict access by children to violent or sexually explicit games.

The "Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2002," introduced May 2, would prohibit the sale or rental or proscribed games to those under 18 years of age. It provides fines and possible jail time for violators.

Baca blamed violent role-playing games for such incidents as school shootings by students in the United Sates and, more recently, in Germany.

"Do you really want your kids assuming the role of a mass murderer or car jacker while you are away at work," the congressman asked.

Interactive Digital Software Association President Doug Lowenstein called the bill unnecessary and unconstitutional. "There simply is no epidemic of children buying violent games," he said.

In a statement announcing introduction of the bill, Baca cited the April 19 decision by Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh of the Eastern District of Missouri. Limbaugh found that violent games did not merit protection under the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression.

The decision came in a case brought by IDSA challenging a St. Louis County ordinance restricting access to the games by minors. Limbaugh denied a request by IDSA for a summary judgment that would throw out the ordinance before trial. The case remains in litigation and IDSA is considering an appeal of the decision.

The district court ruling is not binding on other courts. Other courts, including the U.S. Seventh Circuit in a ruling on a similar law in Indianapolis, have concluded that games are protected by the First Amendment.

Baca said the government shares responsibility for protecting children from harmful games.

"Parents have to take responsibility for their children and monitor where they are learning their behavior," the congressman said. "But stores have a community responsibility to help keep kids from harmful material as well."

The bill specifically targets games that depict: Decapitation, amputation, dismemberment or mutilation; The killing of humans or human-like beings; Car jacking; Illegal drug use; Rape or other sexual assault; Prostitution; Aggravated assault or battery; Any other violent felony.

Although the bill prohibits sale or rental of these games to minors, it defines "video game" to include those used on stand-alone arcade machines as well as on computers, televisions and hand-held devices. First offenders could be fined up to $1,000 and second offenders up to $5,000. Penalties for a third offense could include up to 90 days in jail as well as a $5,000 fine.

Lowenstein called the legislation "a bill in search of a problem, a bill that is clearly unconstitutional and seeks to substitute government regulation and bureaucracy for decisions best left to parents."

He cited Federal Trade Commission statistics that adults are involved in the purchase or rental of games more than 80 percent of the time, and said that retailers, with support of the IDSA, are implementing systems to restrict sale to children of games that have been rated M by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

The bill is H.R. 4645 and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

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