Back in the mid-1980s the leather-clad metal band Judas Priest found themselves embroiled in a trial that was both horrendously sad and almost comically absurd. The court case (which didn’t go to trial until 1990) involved a double suicide of two Nevada teens, Raymond Belknap and James Vance, who, after liberally drinking, smoking lots of pot, and listening to Judas Priest, were moved to attempt a double suicide with a 12-gauge shotgun. Belknap was successful in his suicide attempt, but Vance was not, and wound up surviving the attempt and was left seriously disfigured.
Vance’s parents, after learning that Vance was allegedly inspired by a Judas Priest album, decided to mount a liability suit against the members of Judas Priest, holding the band responsible for feeding ideas to the boys and inspiring them to kill themselves. The trial was a circus and was ultimately dismissed, as there was no evidence of malicious or subversive intent by the band, but served as a very unfortunate commentary on the tenuous nature of first amendment rights, as well as the personal responsibility of individuals for their actions.
I was reminded of this court case earlier in the week when the Supreme Court ruled against, on First Amendment grounds, a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to children. The California law, which was deemed unconstitutional by the high court, would have imposed $1,000 fines on stores that sold violent video games to anyone under 18, and was put in place to protect children and teens from the excessively violent images and actions contained in many popular video games.
In a ruling that was criticized as a victory for big business and a tragedy for children and parents, Justice Scalia defended the courts decision. “Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world),” Justice Scalia wrote. “That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”
For anyone at all familiar with the variety of video games available, there are just as many creative and innovative gaming options as there are gratuitously violent options, and the violent ones are sometimes shockingly violent. The justices sited in their arguments games that simulated rape, murder, and assassination. The obvious fear is that if young impressionable minds engage in these games they will grow numb to the violence and possibly become violent themselves. Emily Bazelon, in writing for The New York Times this weekend (prior to the ruling) took a look at other past efforts to protect children from questionable, and sometimes objectionable, material. In the 1800s, dime novels were blamed for juvenile delinquency. In the early 1900s, it was early movies; in the 1950s, radio dramas and comic books; and next came TV and music lyrics, like in the case of Judas Priest mentioned above.
For many parents, who were looking for the proposed California law to set a precedent and offer some protection from excessively violent content, this ruling makes all children all the more vulnerable. If children are prohibited from buying pornography, should they also be prohibited from buying video games that are violently pornographic? Is there something more vividly engaging about video games that presents a clear and present danger to young minds? Does the protection of free speech trump any concerns about the implied safety of children?