Video Game Bill Violates First Amendment Rights of Producers, Retailers and Customers

July 21, 2008 —  Related

  • The Letter Sent by the NYCLU and the National Coalition Against Censorship to Gov. Paterson (PDF)
  • The New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Coalition Against Censorship today urged Gov. David Paterson to veto legislation that would establish a state system for regulating the sale and content of video games.

    “New Yorkers do not need the state judging which video games are appropriate and which aren’t,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Parents, not government committees, should be responsible for making those judgments. If the legislature wants to reduce youth violence, it should fund educational programs to teach students conflict resolution skills.”

    In a letter sent to Gov. Paterson, the NYCLU and NCAC explain that the bill would directly involve the state in regulating constitutionally protected content in violation of the First Amendment.

    If signed, the bill would bar retailers from selling or renting any video game unless its rating is prominently displayed on the game’s cover. Additionally, the bill would establish a state “advisory council” to review the video game industry’s existing voluntary ratings system for accuracy and effectiveness in identifying violent content. The bill also would require all video game consoles sold in New York to have technology allowing parents to block video games that depict certain vaguely described content.

    Read together, these provisions would create a state system regulating how video games are sold and played based on content that the First Amendment protects from regulation.

    “State appointed officials would review the standards by which the industry establishes video game ratings, and the state would then require these ratings to be placed on packaging as a condition of sale. The bill clearly creates a regulatory scheme that would infringe on the free speech rights of video game creators, retailers and their customers,” said Robert Perry, NYCLU legislative director. “It is our hope that the governor will stand up for the First Amendment and reject this bill.”

    The advocates’ letter states that the proposed legislation is a thinly veiled effort to restrict the sale and purchase of video games that depict violence, based on the notion that viewing violent images leads to violent conduct. Both scientific research and judicial rulings have thoroughly debunked this theory.

    A recent study published by the directors of the Harvard Medical School Center for Public Health and Media concludes there is little evidence to indicate that playing violent video games causes violent behavior; most research that suggests otherwise, the authors write, is based on scanty evidence, inaccurate assumptions and pseudoscience.

    Most video game publishers already voluntarily submit their games for rating to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Courts in jurisdiction throughout the country have ruled that states cannot require retailers to post labels on video games because such requirements constitute government-compelled speech.

    “The entertainment industry’s current rating system for video games already helps parents make informed decisions,” said Joan Bertin, NCAC executive director. “The system cannot become subject to the government’s editorial oversight without violating the First Amendment.”