Picture: Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City (Slate)

The United States Supreme Court has no doubt upset many
parents with its majority decision against a California law which would have banned
the sale or rental of ultra-violent video games to children (under-18s). The
court ruled that such government-imposed limits are a violation of young people’s
Constitutional free speech rights — that is, the right to freely access ideas.

The 7-2 majority vote puts the onus for protecting children
from harmful content in video games on parents and the gaming industry. The
latter already has a voluntary rating system to warn parents which games are
appropriate for which ages, the rating “M” for games that are especially
violent and suitable only for mature audiences — if anyone.

Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, said the decision
created a constitutionally authorized “end-run on parental authority.”

“I wonder what other First Amendment right does a child have against
their parents’ wishes?” he said. “Does a child now have a
constitutional right to bear arms if their parent doesn’t want them to buy a
gun? How far does this extend? It’s certainly concerning to us that something
as simple as requiring a parental oversight to purchase an adult product has
been undermined by the court.”

Winter’s objection raises the issue of how effective a legal
ban is, anyway, if there is not a trusting relationship between parents and
child. Where that is the case, there are many ways for a minor to access
content that the parent would not like, ban or no ban. And there is plenty of
evidence around of parents buying or approving the use of games that appear
inappropriate for children.

In any case the idea that the court’s decision implies a
free speech right against a parent’s authority is a little off-beam. In the
improbable case that a minor took such a case to the Supreme Court — not
vouching for lower courts — it seems most unlikely that the current justices
would decide in his favour. The ruling is not against parental authority but
against the intrusion of government authority into a new area.

One should consider, too, how bans on video games could
extend to movies and books that parents actually want their minor children to
access. Wasn’t this the case when Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ film was
given R18
or similar ratings?

But what about pornography, which is subject to official
restrictions? As dissenting judge Stephen Breyer said:

“What sense does it make to forbid selling to a
13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting the
sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but
virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her?” Breyer
said.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion,
followed a familiar line of reasoning (he is wary of new interpretations of the Constitution) that, “unlike
depictions of sexual conduct, there is no tradition in the United States of
restricting children’s access to depictions of violence. He noted the violence
in the original depictions of many popular children’s fairy tales such as
Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Snow White.” (I have a sister who was scared
to death of “fairy tales”.)

Admittedly, the accompanying pictures airbrushed the
violence, but:

Hansel and Gretel kill their captor by baking her in an oven, Cinderella’s
evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves and the evil queen in Snow
White is forced to wear red hot slippers and dance until she is dead, Scalia
said.

“Certainly the books we give children to read — or read to them when
they are younger — contain no shortage of gore,” he said.

Scalia added that there is no proof that violent video games
cause harm to children, or any more harm than another other form of
entertainment.

Still, there are psychologists and officials — and parents
— who would like to put more of a brake on violence in the media so we
probably haven’t seen the last of this issue.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet