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Free Expression

Massachusetts Legislators Should Reject Bill Targeting Video Games

On Wednesday, the Massachusetts state legislature will consider S.168, a bill that calls for a state-sponsored study to investigate the effect of violent video games – called “killing games” in the bill – on violent behavior among youth. CDT joined the National Coalition Against Censorship and other First Amendment organizations in comments urging the Massachusetts legislature to reject the bill, which singles out video games in an obvious prelude to content-based regulation.

Attempts to regulate video games are not new: many states have tried to restrict minors’ access to video games out of concern for the perceived effect of games on children and teens’ behavior. But these attempts have failed, with the 2011 Supreme Court decision in Brown v EMA underscoring that video games, like books, movies, and online content, receive full First Amendment protection from regulatory burdens imposed by the government. First Amendment doctrine is clear: the government may not target expression “because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”

S.168 does not propose direct regulation of video games, but the goal is clear; the special commission created under the bill would also study “the anticipated cost of any proposals to regulate video games.” Even without this clear anticipation of content-based regulation, the bill would target video games, and video games alone, for government evaluation of their “social benefits.” As the Court noted in Brown v. EMA, legislation focusing on violent video games alone is “wildly underinclusive.” Even if one assumes that exposure to fantasy violence influences behavior over the long term (a conclusion the Court was unable to draw from existing studies in Brown – hence the interest among Massachusetts legislators in helping build a record), children and young adults face a wide range of sources of such content, from books, movies, and television shows, to news programs and educational material. There is no justification for targeting one particular medium for a study designed to further the interest of some state actors in censoring that medium. S.168 proposes a skewed, and constitutionally suspect, study, and the Massachusetts legislature should reject this biased bill.