“Reading Dante” and Video Games

I don’t have time to give this case the attention it deserves, but I’m more than a little intrigued by the results of the recent Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association, in which the Supreme Court declared a California law that would ban the sale of violent video games to minors unconstitutional. The ruling was a little unusual in that Justice Antonin Scalia joined the typically liberal Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, while Justices Breyer and Thomas were the dissenting votes.

I think the case will provide quite a bit of fodder for media studies and free speech scholars, especially given the nature of the rulings (this Daily Kos posting offers a solid overview of the different statements written by the justices). Notably, Scalia compares playing violent video games to “reading Dante,” and while he insists that it is indisputable that literature is ore “intellectually edifying” than playing a video game, Scalia points out that there is no “constitutional” difference. He goes on to argue that protecting children is not enough of a concern to enact a new set of “content-based regulation.” There is some speculation, that Scalia is supporting free speech here to provide cover for his ruling on Citizens United, but I’m not sure if that’s a fully justified critique.

Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, takes the defense of children to fascinating extremes, arguing that

The practices and beliefs of the founding generation establish that “the freedom of speech,” as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech)  without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.

Thomas grounds this argument in the idea that the founders believed that parents had absolute authority over their children. Breyer’s dissent is actually more interesting, grounding itself in social science research that discusses the potential harm of violent video games (I’m not sure I agree, but at least there is some justification). There is quite a bit more here that I can’t cover in detail now, but I am always fascinated when the Supreme Court justices play the role of media scholars.

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