Michigan violent video game law struck down hard in US District Court

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Michigan violent video game law struck down hard in US District Court

Detroit (MI) – Michigan’s Public Act 108, a law that would have barred the sale of ultra-violent and sexually explicit video games to minors, has been ruled unconstitutional. Judge George Steeh of the United States District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, handed down a permanent injunction against the law this morning. In his legal opinion, Judge Steeh cited a lack of conclusive proof linking virtual and real-life violence.

“It would be impossible to separate the functional aspects of a video game from the expressive, inasmuch as they are so closely intertwined and dependent on each other in creating the virtual experience,” wrote Steeh. He added that the First Amendment of the US Constitution covers both the expressive and interactive parts of video games.

The State of Michigan had argued that video games were not covered under the First Amendment because the games include interactivity, whose definition extends beyond the mere expression of speech or thought as the founders intended. Judge Steeh agreed, in part, but stated that in this case, the First Amendment covers the entire video game because the interactive and expressive parts are inseparable from one another.

In the law’s defense, Michigan presented a study by Dr. Craig Anderson of Iowa State University, who in 2000 tested 227 college students. In his findings, Dr. Anderson stated people who played more violent games were also more aggressive, and had lower grades. Anderson claimed that the increased aggressiveness was directly linked to the interactive nature of video games.

Judge Steeh rejected that argument, stating that it could also be argued the interactive element could actually reduce aggressiveness by allowing players to vent their feelings. In addition he said that there was no “concrete evidence” that there was any connection between violent video games and aggressive behavior and also adds that the study, “fails to distinguish between video games and other forms of media.”

Public Act 108 started as Michigan Senate Bill 416, and was signed into law by Governor Jennifer Granholm last September. The law would have allowed the issuance of fines of between $5,000 and $40,000 to anyone caught selling a violent or sexually explicit title to minors, and sentences of to up to 93 days in jail. The bill would have taken effect on 1 December 2005, but was blocked last November by the US District Court after the Entertainment Software Association filed for an injunction.

In his November injunction order, Judge Steeh wrote, “The Act will likely have a chilling effect on adults’ expression, as well as expression that is fully protected as to minors. The response to the Act’s threat of criminal penalties will likely be responded to by self-censoring by game creators, distributors and retailers, including ultimately pulling ‘T’ and ‘M’-rated games off stores shelves altogether.” Proponents of the law had, perhaps ironically, made exactly the same case.

In a statement issued this afternoon, ESA president Douglas Lowenstein said, “It is noteworthy that Judge Steeh specifically chastised the state for not doing what we urged them to do from the start, which is to find less restrictive ways to help ensure that parents make sound choices about the games their kids play. With this wasteful litigation behind us, we hope the state will now do just that and we remain ready to work cooperatively with them.”

Neither the Michigan Retailer’s Association nor the Video Software Dealers’ Association, which jointly filed suit along with the ESA to get the law repealed, had issued comments this afternoon.

The death of Michigan’s violent video game law follows in the wake of similar defeats of similar laws passed in California and Illinois. In October 2005, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law Assembly Bill 1179, which criminalized the sale of violent games to minors. In Illinois, the Safe Games Illinois Act was passed in July 2005. Both of the California and Illinois laws were struck down December of last year by United States District Courts. Similar laws have been in contention in Georgia, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia; and a violent video game law on the federal scale was offered before the US Senate early last year by Senator Hillary Clinton (D – New York), Joe Lieberman (D – Connecticut), and Evan Bayh (D – Indiana).

Whether the takedown of the Michigan law leads merely to litigation proceeding to the next level, may be resolved in short order. A spokesperson for Gov. Granholm told the Detroit Free Press this afternoon that the Governor’s office “will be reviewing the judge’s order and discussing legal options, including an appeal at the attorney general’s office…But we will continue our efforts to protect kids from violent video games by working with retailers.” The way things are going, legislators may be lining these bills up only for the courts to knock them down. Eventually, the credibility of the notion of violent video game legislation as a whole could wind up before the US Supreme Court.