Suzanne Fields / July 1, 2011

Video Violence vs. Free Speech

Children can do terrible things. They can bully and maim, even murder. In our lifetime, we’ve seen young people arm themselves and shoot down classmates and teachers. We shake our heads in shock and wonder. How can such things happen? So we look for reasons – sane, rational explanations for violent behavior and ways to curb it.

We gather the usual suspects. Sometimes it’s parents. Sometimes it’s the culture. California blames violent video games. The state with the motto “Eureka,” translated from the Greek to mean “I have found it” (with credit to Archimedes), thought it had a solution in keeping violent video games away from minors. These games were not re-enactments of Bonnie and Clyde, but of terrible crimes such as the assassination of President Kennedy, and the massacres at Virginia Tech and Columbine High, and imaginary narratives of unrelenting violence, all with innocent victims.

Children can do terrible things. They can bully and maim, even murder. In our lifetime, we’ve seen young people arm themselves and shoot down classmates and teachers. We shake our heads in shock and wonder. How can such things happen? So we look for reasons – sane, rational explanations for violent behavior and ways to curb it.

We gather the usual suspects. Sometimes it’s parents. Sometimes it’s the culture. California blames violent video games. The state with the motto “Eureka,” translated from the Greek to mean “I have found it” (with credit to Archimedes), thought it had a solution in keeping violent video games away from minors. These games were not re-enactments of Bonnie and Clyde, but of terrible crimes such as the assassination of President Kennedy, and the massacres at Virginia Tech and Columbine High, and imaginary narratives of unrelenting violence, all with innocent victims.

We’re not talking passive play, either. If a case can be made for video games providing skills that increase eye-to-hand coordination, then these games require more than automatic reflexes. Winning depends on brainy strategies to be vile and violent. Who could be against keeping such games out of the hands of children?

The Supreme Court, that’s who. In a 7-to-2 decision, the justices struck down a California statute that would make it a crime to sell or rent particularly violent video games to minors. They didn’t accept the argument from one lawyer who, in defense of the statute, said he found no evidence that “our Founding Fathers in enacting the First Amendment intended to guarantee video game retailers a First Amendment right.”

The plaintiff’s lawyer was right that video game retailers did not merit an ink scratch from a Founding Father’s plume, but as Justice Antonin Scalia observed, writing for the majority, “Whatever the challenges of applying the Constitution to ever-advancing technology, the basic principles of freedom of speech and the press, like the First Amendment’s command, do not vary when a new and different medium for communication appears.”

The erudite justice draws our attention to some blood-curdling literary devices from fairy tales to classics. Hansel and Gretel bake the wicked witch in an oven; the Cyclops in “The Odyssey” is blinded with a fiery-pointed brand that is whirled round in his eye as blood spurts; in the “Inferno,” Dante and Virgil look on as corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch lest they be skewered by devils waiting for them on the surface. (Some ideas may be worth reviving.)

There is, of course, a huge difference in cultural taste from reading Homer to playing “Mortal Kombat,” which determines what we think is morally and aesthetically uplifting, but that’s not a constitutional issue.

As technology has advanced, violent images of imaginative horrors in comic books, moving pictures, television and now videos have become convenient targets for censorship, which is why they continue to require thoughtful appraisal, not action based on emotional disgust. Without careful deliberation, they could quickly create a slippery slope, allowing the government to limit liberties the Founding Fathers sought to protect with the First Amendment.

Studies that suggested imaginative causes for violence resulting from games, in support of the California statute, were not persuasive. Psychiatry is revealed by history as flawed for predicting behavior, and it wasn’t difficult in the 1950s to find an eminent psychiatrist to testify that even Superman comic books were injurious to a young person’s moral development, leading to juvenile delinquency.

I know parents who won’t allow their sons to play with toy guns, and they’re surprised when a twig or a pointed index finger becomes a weapon for fantasy “bang bang.” Psychological causes leading to aggressive behavior are difficult to measure. Imaginative violence may even allay fears and offer emotional control.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about the violent saturation children are exposed to in new video games. Parents must be vigilant in deciding what and how much their children watch and play.

Justice Samuel Alito, in a dissenting opinion, cogently argued that society should keep a close eye on the developing technology and its impact on impressionable minors. We shouldn’t automatically assume that it is similar in its impact to what has gone before now that the fantasy reality is more realistic and closer to the real world as “victims are dismembered, decapitated, disemboweled, set on fire and chopped into little pieces.”

The arguments for censorship in California were weak, vague and inadequate, and would have set a dangerous precedent. The justices reminded us how easy it is to be disgusted and want to strike out against what’s obviously hideous and outrageous, but necessarily reminded us that the First Amendment wasn’t designed to protect Mary Poppins and Harry Potter.

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