This week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a California video game statute as unconstitutional, holding that it violated both the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal Constitution. The California law, which passed in October 2005 (A.B.1179), would have blocked the sale of “violent” video games to those under 18 and required labels on all games. Offending retailers could have been fined for failure to comply with the law. It was immediately challenged by the Video Software Dealers Association and the Entertainment Software Association and, in August of 2007, a district court decision in the case of Video Software Dealers Association v. Schwarzenegger [decision here] enforced a permanent injunction against the law. The Ninth Circuit heard the state’s challenge to the injunction last year and handed down it’s decision this week [decision here] holding the statute unconstitutional. The key passage:
We hold that the Act, as a presumptively invalid content based restriction on speech, is subject to strict scrutiny and not the “variable obscenity” standard from Ginsberg v. New York , 390 U.S. 629 (1968). Applying strict scrutiny, we hold that the Act violates rights protected by the First Amendment because the State has not demonstrated a compelling interest, has not tailored the restriction to its alleged compelling interest, and there exist less-restrictive means that would further the State’s expressed interests. Additionally, we hold that the Act’s labeling requirement is unconstitutionally compelled speech under the First Amendment because it does not require the disclosure of purely factual information; but compels the carrying of the State’s controversial opinion. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Plaintiffs and its denial of the State’s cross-motion. Because we affirm the district court on these grounds, we do not reach two of Plaintiffs’ challenges to the Act: first, that the language of the Act is unconstitutionally vague, and, second, that the Act violates Plaintiffs’ rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The law’s lead sponsor, California Sen. Leland Yee, is encouraging the state to appeal the law to the Supreme Court. No word yet from Gov. Schwarzenegger whether the state will pursue that course of action. If they do, this will become the first major First Amendment case regarding video game speech that our nation’s highest court will consider. The video game industry has racked up an uninterrupted string of First Amendment victories, so it would be quite shocking if the Supreme Court took up this case and then held differently. It would also be shocking in light of the many Internet-related free speech decisions that the Court has handed down since the mid-90s, which all favored greater First Amendment freedoms. But you never know.