A recent US Supreme Court ruling invalidated a California law that banned the sale of certain violent video games to children on the grounds that the law violated freedom of speech. The controversy is an old one, and goes roughly as follows. Proponents of laws banning violent media – especially the sale of violent media to children – point to different studies arguing that violence in media promotes violence in real life and that children in particular are at risk of becoming violent adults. Since people have a right to be protected against violence and children have a right not to suffer the psychological harm that purportedly comes from the consumption of violent games, we have here a case of rights conflicting with each other: on the one hand the free speech rights of the makers and sellers of games, and on the other hand the security rights of the potential victims of violent behavior provoked by the consumption of violent games, as well as the mental health rights of the consumers of those games. Hence, one of those rights should give way to the other rights.
Proponents of restrictions of free speech in this case argue that a prohibition of the sale of violent games to children is the best option since the speech value of a violent video game is small, and since producers of such games still have the freedom of “artistic expression” because they can still sell to adults. The cost of limiting free speech in this case is small compared to the gains in terms of physical security and psychological health. And there are precedents such as movie ratings.
The opponents of limitations on free speech can also point to studies showing the absence of an effect on real life violence or even the opposite effect – the so-called “pressure valve theory“. They can also use the slippery slope argument and claim that the sale of many classical works of fiction should then also be prohibited on the same grounds, since they also contain scenes of violence.
The US Supreme court sided with the opponents, unsurprisingly given the near absolutism of free speech protection in the US (only a couple of exceptions to free speech are recognized in US jurisprudence, and expression of violence isn’t one of them).
While I personally find US free speech jurisprudence difficult to accept and generally hypocritical – why can obscene material be censored but not violent material? – I think in this case the SCOTUS decision is probably right. The psychological evidence does not, as far as I can tell, clearly show an effect of media violence on real life violence, and even if there is a small effect, a general prohibition on violence in media probably goes too far, as does a general prohibition on the sale of media containing violence. Even a prohibition on the sale of such material to children is probably too much, even given the fact that children are more impressionable. Violence has many causes, and the “pressure valve” theory has some intuitive appeal (also in the case of pornography by the way). A rating system, allowing parents to do their job, is probably better.