SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a California law to regulate the sale of violent video games to minors has vindicated his stance for government to stay out of policing home entertainment.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 to throw out California's ban on the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. The law would have prohibited the sale of such games to anyone under 18 and fined retailers up to $1,000 for each infraction. In a given day, a video game seller could face thousands of dollars in fines.
Shurtleff said much like R-rated movies and adult-language music, regulation should rest with parents and businesses.
"Nobody likes the fact that there are violent video games out there, and no one likes their kids watching them," Shurtleff said, adding parents and the gaming industry need to take responsibility for keeping violent games away from minors, just as with movies and music.
"Parents, that's the key. That's what is going to control what movies they see and what music they listen to. Video games are no different," Shurtleff told the Deseret News. He said he believes that the government shouldn't step in and substitute for parenting.
"Parents need to wake up and be aware," he said.
Still, Shurtleff got some political heat two years from proponents of a Utah bill that would allow parents to more easily sue video game retailers if they advertise that they don't sell violent games to minors and then do. Shurtleff also filed a friend of the court brief in opposition to the California law.
Bill sponsor Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, along with other lawmakers and the Utah Eagle Forum, criticized Shurtleff and then Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. for being politically "moderate" in opposing the bill. Morley could not be reached for comment Monday.
The bill passed with broad support by the Utah Legislature only to be vetoed by Huntsman in March 2009. Huntsman cited concerns over free speech and impact on businesses.
Shurtleff said the Supreme Court ruling was the right decision in protecting First-Amendment rights. "The government isn't always able to step in and take over the role as parent," Shurtleff said, adding he is happy with the way the video game industry has self-regulated itself. He also encouraged parents to screen their kids' games by going to the ESRB website to check a game's content rating.
He said a recent national "secret buyer" study showed that Utah's video game retailers did a better job keeping mature games away from minors than movie theaters did with R-rated movies.
The Supreme Court's ruling falls in line with past rulings regarding the regulation of movies and music. Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, said violent content has never been limited by the courts, comparing violent video games to fairy tales, such as Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Snow White.
Hansel and Gretel push their captor into an oven, Cinderella's evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves and the evil queen in Snow White is forced to wear red hot slippers and dance until she is dead. "Certainly the books we give children to read — or read to them when they are younger — contain no shortage of gore," Scalia said.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer dissented from the majority, saying the First Amendment doesn't grant "a right to speak by minors" or a right of minors to access speech.
One Utah lawmaker said the issue isn't settled. "I think that the debate is not over, because while the opinion seems strongly in favor of striking the law down, I still think there's room to work with this," Rep. Julie Fisher, R-Fruit Heights, said.
She was supportive of Morley's bill. She points to the fact that justices Alito and Roberts noted that there is a difference between reading about violence and visually experiencing it and participating. Fisher said Monday's ruling was "unfortunate," but the justices have left enough of the door open to revisit the issue. Fisher said laws should be in place to ensure that video game retailers follow and respect the will of parents.
The Utah Eagle Forum criticized the ruling and blasted Shurtleff for his position.
"Utah Eagle Forum has worked with Utah state legislators to try to pass similar legislation in Utah and we are extremely disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court has chosen to place the money making interests of big business, namely the video gaming industry, over the interests of our children," the group stated in a press release Monday. The group said it was "terribly disappointed" in Shurtleff's stance, adding it sends the wrong message to the nation that Utah is not concerned with protecting children.
Shurtleff said he does care about children and parents, but that we must be careful when deciding if government should intervene in our lives.
Still, Shurtleff said the U.S. Supreme Court, eight federal circuit courts and countless lower courts have sided with the video game industry, rejecting studies that indicate a connection between violent games and violence in children.
"Research into the effects of video game violence is problematic at best," said Peter Christiansen, an adjunct instructor at the University of Utah's Communication Department who teaches a course on video game studies.
He said studies that link violent behavior to video games have generally been rejected because of their simplistic approach. "They generally operate under the assumption that players are uncritical of the games they play, like a viewer who believes everything he sees on television," he said.
Rather than attempting to restrict video game content, Christiansen said more effort should be spent trying to promote video game literacy to help children understand the difference between the game and reality.