States cannot ban the sale or rental of ultraviolent video games to children, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, rejecting such limits as a violation of young people's First Amendment rights and leaving it up to parents and the multibillion-dollar game industry to decide what kids can buy.
And in another key ruling, the justices struck down part of Arizona's public campaign finance law, the court's latest decision that the right of political speech trumps government's attempts to restrain the power of money in elections.
The high court, in a 7-2 vote, threw out California's 2005 law covering games sold or rented to those younger than 18, calling it an unconstitutional violation of free-speech rights. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia, said, "Even where the protection of children is the object, the constitutional limits on governmental action apply."
Scalia, who pointed out the violence in a number of children's fairy tales, said that while states have legitimate power to protect children from harm, "that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed."
Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Clarence Thomas dissented from the decision, with Breyer saying that it makes no sense to legally block children's access to pornography yet allow them to buy or rent brutally violent video games.
"What sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting the sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her?" Breyer said.
Video games, according to Scalia's majority opinion, fall into the same category as books, plays and movies -- entertainment that "communicates ideas and even social messages" and deserves First Amendment free-speech protection.
More than 46 million American households have at least one video game system, with the industry bringing in at least $18 billion in 2010. The industry has set up its own rating system to warn parents which video games are appropriate for which ages, with the rating "M" placed on games that are considered to be especially violent and only for mature adults. That system is voluntary.
Makers and sellers of video games celebrated their victory, saying Monday's decision puts them on the same legal footing as other forms of entertainment. "There now can be no argument whether video games are entitled to the same protection as books, movies, music and other expressive entertainment," said Bo Andersen, president and CEO of the Entertainment Merchants Association.
Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, said the decision created a constitutionally authorized "end run on parental authority."
In its campaign finance edict, the court rejected Arizona's system of providing "matching funds" to candidates who face big-spending opponents or opposition groups. The system has been used in every statewide and legislative election since voters approved it in 1998, after a period in which the state told the court that a "seamless interplay between fundraising and lawmaking cast a web of perceived corruption over the Arizona capitol."
But the court by a now familiar 5-4 margin, said the law acts to discourage candidates and independent political organizations from spending money to further their political speech.
"The First Amendment embodies our choice as a nation that, when it comes to such speech, the guiding principle is freedom -- the 'unfettered interchange of ideas' -- not whatever the state may view as fair," wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
Justice Elena Kagan spoke for the objectors, reading her dissent from the bench for emphasis. "The First Amendment's core purpose is to foster a healthy, vibrant political system full of robust discussion and debate," Kagan said. "Nothing in Arizona's anti-corruption statute violates this constitutional protection."