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Judge nixes Michigan law aimed at 'violent' games

State law restricting sale of video games deemed harmful to minors violates First Amendment, federal judge rules.

A federal judge has overturned a Michigan law restricting the sale of violent video games, the most recent in a series of decisions that have gutted similar laws on free-speech grounds.

U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh ruled on Friday that a state law criminalizing the sale of violent video games to anyone under 17 years of age is unconstitutional because those forms of entertainment are protected by the First Amendment's freedom of expression clause.

"Video games are a form of creative expression that are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment," Steeh ruled. "They contain original artwork, graphics, music, story lines and characters similar to movies and television shows, both of which are considered protected free speech."

The ruling (click here for PDF) represents another setback to politicians and anti-game activists who have mounted a state-by-state campaign for such restrictions. In the last few years, the 7th and 8th Circuit courts of appeal, plus federal judges in Washington, Illinois and California have found such laws to be unconstitutional.

"As long as they keep losing and most of the time don't even appeal, things are unlikely to change," said Paul Smith, a partner at the Jenner and Block law firm who is representing the Entertainment Software Association and the Video Software Dealers Association in the lawsuit.

One reason for the judicial skepticism is that academic studies have not established a link between simulated violence in video games and real-world action. (Under Supreme Court precedent, such a link between simulated violence and "imminent lawless action" would be necessary to make those laws constitutional.)

Craig Anderson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, offered testimony on behalf of Michigan, saying that simulated violence can become "automatized" with repeated exposure.

But Steeh, in a 17-page opinion, said that "despite this claim, Dr. Anderson's studies have not provided any evidence that the relationship between violent video games and aggressive behavior exists. His tests fail to prove that video games have ever caused anyone to commit a violent act, as opposed to feeling aggressive, or have caused the average level of violence to increase anywhere."

Politicians who support more laws targeting video games have, however, been trying to write large checks to researchers they hope will come up with more compelling studies. Last month, Democratic senators Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Hillary Clinton of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois persuaded a Senate committee to approve a sweeping study of the "impact of electronic media use."

Last year's news about a sex scene embedded in Rockstar Games' "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" also has caused politicians to complain. (Rockstar, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, has said the so-called Hot Coffee modification--which permits a player to simulate sex with a woman--was the work of hackers who performed "significant technical modifications and reverse-engineering" of the game.)

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 355 to 21 last July for a resolution calling for an investigation of "Grand Theft Auto," and a similar measure was introduced in the Senate.