The US Supreme Court has ruled that computer games, no matter how violent, qualify as free speech and are therefore protected from restriction under the First Amendment.
In a 7-2 ruling the court found for the Entertainment Software Association in its case against California state officials, who sought to restrict the sale of violent video games to minors with a new law in 2006.
After repeated court failures the Californian government took the issue to the Supreme Court, with Microsoft, Sony, Electronic Arts and Take Two (publisher of Grand Theft Auto) giving evidence opposing a ban.
"Video games qualify for First Amendment protection. Like protected books, plays and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium. And 'the basic principles of freedom of speech ... do not vary' with a new and different communication medium," the Supreme Court ruling (PDF) stated.
The ruling noted that depictions of violence are part of a long tradition, citing Homer's description of the blinding of the Cyclops and Hansel and Gretel's burning of a witch alive in an oven.
William Golding's Lord of the Flies contains a brutal murder, as does Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and the fact that such depictions are now delivered with advanced computer technology makes no difference.
"This country has no tradition of specially restricting children's access to depictions of violence," the ruling said.
"California's claim that 'interactive' video games present special problems, in that the player participates in the violent action on screen and determines its outcome, is unpersuasive."
There were, however, dissenting voices. Justice Clarence Thomas took an historical perspective, arguing that the writers of the Constitution would not have had a problem with the law since it enforced a parent's right to monitor their child's interactions.
"The freedom of speech, as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors without going through the minors' parents or guardians. Therefore, I cannot agree that the statute at issue is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment," he wrote in his dissent from the judgement.
The move will be a boost for the computer games industry, which would have faced reduced sales and the prospect of similar restrictions across other states in the US. It will also see considerable savings on its legal bills.
"This is a historic and complete win for the First Amendment and the creative freedom of artists and storytellers everywhere," said Michael D. Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association.
"Today, the Supreme Court affirmed what we have always known - that free speech protections apply every bit as much to video games as they do to other forms of creative expression like books, movies and music."
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