Wake Up Christie : This is Already Unconstitutional
Courtesy Kyle Orland, ArsTechnica
When a New Jersey state legislator first proposed a bill to ban sales of M- and AO-rated games to anyone under 18 last month, we figured it was just another small-time politician trying to make a name for himself with a proposal that wouldn’t go anywhere. And when a New Jersey state task forcerecommended regulating violent video games as part of its “gun protection, addiction, mental health and families, and education safety” report, we figured it was the kind of cover-your-ass bureaucratic language that would (hopefully) be ignored in a report focused on more substantive gun safety measures.
But then New Jersey governor Chris Christie put his political weight behind restrictions on selling video games to minors last week. Now we realize that the New Jersey political establishment seems dead-set on making a serious push for this blatantly unconstitutional measure.
It’s sad, because this is exactly the kind of waste of state legislative resources that the Supreme Court aimed to stop with its 2010 Schwarzenegger vs. EMA ruling, which gave full first amendment protections to video games. Before that ruling, roughly a dozen states had passed various measures to limit minors’ access to violent video games. All those initiatives were eventually struck down by state or federal courts after lengthy legal battles. With Supreme Court precedent on the books, the thinking went, no other state legislature would have to waste its time dealing with what was now an established constitutional precedent to protect game sales.
Apparently New Jersey’s politicians didn’t get that message. “Ensuring there are common-sense safety measures when purchasing guns is not enough,” Christie said at a press conference last Friday. “We must address the many different contributing factors… This is just common sense and means that parents and legal guardians are actively engaged and aware of the kinds of games their kids are buying and renting.”
It’s interesting that Christie appeals to “common sense” when defending this measure, because scientific studies into the supposed effects of video game violence actually contradict that common sense. There have been plenty of studies and meta–studies making the same point, but the Supreme Court itself probably summed it up best:
Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media. Since California has declined to restrict those other media, e.g., Saturday morning cartoons, its video-game regulation is wildly underinclusive, raising serious doubts about whether the State is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.
The plan Christie is now touting is nearly identical to the California bill that was passed in 2005 and struck down by the high court five years later—after a legal battle that cost the state’s taxpayers $2 million dollars in opposing legal fees (not to mention the cost to their own attorney general’s office). Christie and other New Jersey politicians backing this measure should be aware that their bill would undoubtedly lead to nothing but similar wasted legal fees with no actual law to show for it. Plenty of legal experts can tell them just that. Even if the bill were somehow successful in court, it would do little to improve upon current self-regulation among video game retailers. The FTC has found game retailer self-regulation to be the best among all major entertainment media.
The video game legislation seems out of place with the raft of proposed gun control legislation that Christie also rolled out on Friday. In the wake of various mass shootings and terror attacks in the United States, video games serve as a useful scapegoat and a convenient distraction for politicians who want to look like they’re doing more than just going after guns. Despite its 40+ year history, the video games medium is still new and unfamiliar enough to a voting population skewed toward the elderly, so politicians can still attack it without paying much, if any, price at the polls.
This situation won’t last forever, though, as a generation that grew up with games rises to power knowing first-hand that the moral panic surrounding gaming is just as empty as previous outcries over comic books, rock and roll, and young-adult novels. We had hoped that the Supreme Court had ushered in that era just a little sooner, but New Jersey is doing its best to prove otherwise.