A Response to Leland Yee & James Steyer on What Motivated Video Game Decision

by on June 28, 2011 · 4 comments

Yesterday’s 7-2 decision in Brown v. EMA [summaries here from me + Berin Szoka] was one of those historic First Amendment rulings that tends to bring out passions in people. You either loved it or hated it. But it’s sad to see some critics on the losing end of the case declaring that only greed could have possibly motivated the Court’s decision.

For example, California Senator Leland Yee, the author of the law that the Supreme Court struck down yesterday, obviously wasn’t happy about the outcome of the case. Neither was James Steyer, CEO of the advocacy group Common Sense Media, who has been a vociferous advocate of the California law and measures like it. What they had to say in response to the decision, however, was outlandish and juvenile. In essence, they both claimed that the Supreme Court only struck down the law to make video game developers and retailers happy.

“Unfortunately, the majority of the Supreme Court once again put the interests of corporate America before the interests of our children,” Leland Yee said in a post on his website yesterday. “As a result of their decision, Wal-Mart and the video game industry will continue to make billions of dollars at the expense of our kids’ mental health and the safety of our community. It is simply wrong that the video game industry can be allowed to put their profit margins over the rights of parents and the well-being of children.” Jim Steyer reached a similar conclusion: “Today’s decision is a disappointing one for parents, educators, and all who care about kids,” he said. “Today, the multi-billion dollar video game industry is celebrating the fact that their profits have been protected, but we will continue to fight for the best interests of kids and families.”

Mr. Yee and Mr. Steyer seem to be under the impression that the Court and supporters of its ruling in Brown cannot possibly care about children and that something sinister motivates our passion about the victory. Apparently we’re all just apparently in it to make video game industry fat cats and retailing giants happy! That’s a truly insulting position for Mr. Yee and Mr. Steyer to adopt. Perhaps it is just because they are sore about the outcome in the case that are adopting such rhetorical tactics. Regardless, I think they do themselves, their constituencies, and the public a great injustice by suggesting that only greed could possibly be motivating the outcome in this case.

Why is it so hard for Mr. Yee and Mr. Steyer to believe that many of us — like the majority writing for the Court in Brown — believe that video games represent valuable, constitutionally protected speech and that laws like those in California are an affront to First Amendment rights we cherish? What Mr. Yee and Mr. Steyer are asking us to believe is that all those average gamers and free speech advocates who lined up behind the video game industry and merchants who brought this case did so only out of a concern about the welfare of those companies.  Preposterous!  Anyone who knows anything about game industry politics knows that some rather serious tensions exist between gamers, game developers, and game retailers.

Incidentally, it’s particular silly for Mr. Yee to single out Wal-Mart in his comment yesterday since Wal-Mart actually goes to great lengths to keep “Mature”-rated games out of the hands of minors who might try to purchase them on their own. But I could care less about how much money Wal-Mart, any other retailer, or any video game developer makes from selling games. That’s the last thing on the mind of most First Amendment supporters when they praise this decision and it’s ridiculous that Mr. Yee and Mr. Steyer would list it as the primary motivation of the Court or supporters of the decision.

And then there’s Mr. Steyer’s comment that “today’s decision is a disappointing one for parents, educators, and all who care about kids.”  Utterly insulting tripe. Millions of parents like me “care about kids” passionately and devote most of our lives to raising them properly. I understand you want to help us do that, but you are not helping when you insult the very people you say your organization exists to support.

I have repeatedly praised Common Sense Media here and elsewhere for many of the outstanding services and information they provide to parents. My wife and I regularly consult CSM’s excellent movie and video game summaries before we let our kids consume certain titles. It was also my great privilege to serve on a blue ribbon online child safety task force that CSM created and co-sponsored.

But when Mr. Steyer veers into this sort of hysterical ‘you’re-either-for-these-laws-or-you’re-against-children’ sort of lunacy, it really makes me question whether I should frequent his organization’s website anymore or have any further interaction with this group. While I appreciate CSM’s efforts to empower parents with more and better information about the content our families consume, it is insulting in the extreme for Mr. Steyer to suggest that you can’t “care about kids” and also care about the First Amendment.

Like the majority of the justices on the Court, I support limits on how our government controls speech because we live in a nation that cherishes freedom of expression and personal responsibility.  We should not expect Uncle Sam to act as a national nanny and make subjective determinations about what is best for our families. As Catherine Ross, a professor at George Washington University Law School, noted in a nice Washington Post oped, “By rejecting this radical path, the justices [in Brown] protected our children by preserving our liberty.”

Quite right.  I’m proud the Supreme Court sided with freedom yesterday and against the sort of nannyism from above that Mr. Steyer and Mr. Yee apparently favor and equate with “caring about kids.”  These men obviously don’t take First Amendment rights quite as seriously as some of the rest of us. But shame on them for claiming that just because many of us (or the Courts) do take these rights and responsibilities seriously that it somehow means we don’t care about our children or that we only believe these things in order to make corporations happy.

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