Vidgame ban zapped

Court cites free speech, overturns lower ruling

HOLLYWOOD — A federal appeals court tossed out a St. Louis County, Mo., law banning sales of violent vidgames to minors, ruling games are “analytically indistinguishable” from other kinds of entertainment explicitly protected by the First Amendment.

The decision may have larger implications for other local, state and federal legislative efforts to control sales of violent games to minors. U.S. Rep. Joe Baca (R-Calif.) and U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D.-Conn.) have pushed to regulate vidgame sales, as have Washington state and the city of Indianapolis.

The Interactive Digital Software Assn., the vidgame industry trade group, and several other retailer and trade groups challenged the St. Louis County ordinance as soon as it was passed, but lost an initial round when a federal district judge ruled against its request to throw out the law on constitutional grounds.

District court overruled

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the district court, sending the case back to that court with instructions to issue a ruling “not inconsistent” with its opinion.

“If the First Amendment is versatile enough to ‘shield (the) painting of Jackson Pollock, music of Arnold Schoenberg, or Jabberwocky verse of Lewis Carroll …’ we see no reason why the pictures, graphic design, concept art, sounds, music, stories and narrative present in video games are not entitled to a similar protection,” the court wrote.

The court also dismissed county claims that vidgames’ interactivity makes them different from books, music, movies or live performances.

“The mere fact that they appear in a novel medium is of no legal consequence,” the court said. “Indeed, we find it telling that the county seeks to restrict access to these video games precisely because their content purportedly affects the thought or behavior of those who play them.

Court: Same as movie

“The same could be said of action-packed movies like ‘The Matrix’ or ‘Charlie’s Angels’; any viewer with a videocassette or DVD player could simply skip to and isolate the action sequences,” the court continued. “The fact that modern technology has increased viewer control does not render movies unprotected by the First Amendment, and equivalent player control likewise should not automatically disqualify modern video games that are ‘analytically indistinguishable from … protected media such as motion pictures.’ ”

The St. Louis County case also attracted, among others, friend of the court briefs by the MPAA, the RIAA and other media and entertainment industry groups concerned about the case’s ramifications for their businesses.