Exactly a year ago, I wrote the following column for the July 2010 issue of Maximum PC. I'm reprinting it here in light of today's Supreme Court decision.
Look, I’ve been on the internet since the internet was on. In those weird early days, I saw enough of alt.binaries.ohmygodicantbelievetheyredoingthat to illumine the darker corners of humanity.
Thus, I was not at all surprised that some ostensibly human-like creatures get their kicks watching videos of attractive women crushing small animals to death under stiletto heels. It’s a fallen world, and any cursory glance at history or headlines shows us that men are capable of unspeakable depravity.
I was surprised, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these “crush” and dogfight videos were, in fact, protected speech. In their April decision on United States v. Stevens, the court voted 8-1 to overturn a ban on the sale and distribution of these videos. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that, although the acts depicted are in fact illegal, the ban on images of these creates a “criminal prohibition of alarming breadth,” and violated 1st amendment protections.
Why is any of this of any concern to gamers?
Simple: the Roberts court is about to get their first swing at the gaming piñata. In a case bearing the sublime name of Schwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers Association, California’s laws banning the sale of violent games to anyone under the age of 18 have already failed to pass muster with various courts. Most recently, the notoriously liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law was in violation of the 1st and 14th amendments, clearing the path to a Supreme Court challenge.
The Stevens decision, although not an exact analog, is a pretty clear indication of where the Roberts court stands on freedom of speech, with obvious applications to video and computer games. After all, if 8 out of 9 justices can rule that video recordings of illegal acts of animal cruelty are protected speech, then the court is packed with more 1st amendment absolutists than the staff of Reason magazine.
Of course, what the VSDA and the development community should be asking themselves is, “How did our content become so depraved that we’re relying upon animal torture videos as precedent?”