Supreme Court considers violent games rules case

Image caption, There is conflicting evidence over the effect of violent games

The highest court in the US has heard arguments over whether children can be stopped from buying violent video games involving murder and sexual assault.

The Supreme Court case centres on a ban in California on selling or renting games to those under the age of 18.

Opponents of the measure says it breaches the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.

But supporters say the law is necessary as violent games can cause harm to children.

Supreme Court justices appeared split on Tuesday over whether the restrictions are constitutional.

"We do not have a tradition in this country of telling children they should watch people actively hitting schoolgirls over the head with a shovel so they'll beg with mercy - being merciless and decapitating them - shooting people in the leg so they fall down," Chief Justice John Roberts said.

But other justices appeared to be worried the law, which was never put into effect, could have larger, damaging implications for the US constitution.

"I am concerned with the First Amendment, which says Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech," said Justice Antonin Scalia.

He added: "It has never been understood that the freedom of speech did not include portrayals of violence. You are asking us to create a whole new prohibition which the American people never ratified when they ratified the First Amendment."

Paul Smith, a lawyer for the Entertainment Merchants Association, added there was no proof violent video games were any more damaging than television, books or movies.

"We have a history in this country of new mediums coming along and people vastly overreacting to them, thinking the sky is falling, our children are all going to be turned into criminals," he said.

'Morbid interests'

The 2005 California law prohibits the sale of violent video games to children "where a reasonable person would find that the violent content appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors, is patently offensive to prevailing community standards as to what is suitable for minors, and causes the game as a whole to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors".

Under the law, parents can still purchase violent video games for their children, but retailers caught selling the titles to minors can face a fine of up to $1,000 (£625) for each game.

After a legal challenge by industry groups, a district court and then the court of appeals stopped the law coming into effect.

Courts in six other states have also reached similar conclusions, striking down bans.

The Supreme Court, which will make a decision next year on the case, may have to decide if California is required to demonstrate "a direct causal link between violent video games and physical and psychological harm to minors" before stopping games being sold to them.

Outgoing California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is supporting the legal case against the Entertainment Merchants Association, with a number of other trade groups and rights activist bodies involved.

There is already a nationwide voluntary system of game classification.

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