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Court upholds ban on Minnesota video game law

State wanted to fine kids under 17 who purchased games with mature or adults-only rating. A district court rejected the law, and now an appeals court agrees.

The video game industry and free-speech proponents landed yet another legal victory on Monday, when a federal appeals court affirmed a 2006 rejection of a Minnesota law restricting minors' access to violent titles.

The Minnesota law would have imposed up to a $25 fine on minors younger than 17 caught buying or renting video games rated "M" for mature or "AO" for adults-only, under the video game industry's rating system.

But a U.S. district judge blocked the new policy the day before it was scheduled to take effect. The judge cited constitutional concerns and "a paucity of evidence linking the availability of video games with any harm to Minnesota's children at all."

The state appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, where a three-judge panel unanimously upheld the lower court's findings in an eight-page opinion (PDF) released Monday.

Minnesota officials had argued that their interest in protecting the welfare of children justified the new law--and that children have no First Amendment right to play violent video games. They laced their briefs with descriptions of violence in games like The Punisher ("Game player is able to jam knives into victims' sternums") and Resident Evil: 4 ("includes chainsaw decapitations and impalements"), and submitted studies by medical and public-health groups that claimed to document a causal relationship between media violence and aggressive behavior in children.

The appeals court ultimately ruled that the state "failed to come forth with incontrovertible proof of a causal relationship between the exposure to such violence and subsequent psychological dysfunction," and it disagreed with its constitutional interpretation.

"Indeed, a good deal of the Bible portrays scenes of violence, and one would be hard-pressed to hold up as a proper role model the regicidal Macbeth," the judges wrote. "Although some might say that it is risible to compare the violence depicted in the examples offered by the State to that described in classical literature, such violence has been deemed by our court worthy of First Amendment protection, and there the matter stands."

Those conclusions aren't exactly surprising. The same appeals court held that violent video games are protected free speech in a 2003 case against a St. Louis County, Mo., law.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001 and again in 2006 came out the same way. And attempts at restricting minors' access to violent video games in other states--including California, Louisiana, and Michigan--have also been rejected by courts in recent years.

The Entertainment Software Association, which represents the video game industry, has made a habit of challenging such laws as they arise, with its position backed by groups like the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the American Library Association.

With that sort of track record, it's a wonder that state and local governments haven't given up on the idea entirely, but that doesn't appear to be the case. In fact, this week, a committee in Massachusetts is planning to consider a bill, endorsed by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, that would--you guessed it--restrict violent video game sales to minors.