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Holy legal hand grenades! Comic book creators say California game law could clobber all media

September 17, 2010 |  6:00 am

Photographers Against Censorship Can a California video game law banning the sale of violent games to minors potentially spill over to other media? The comic book world thinks so. 

In a brief filed Friday with the Supreme Court, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund urged the high court to reject the law, saying it "would undermine more First Amendment principles in a single case that any decision in living memory."

In short, the brief argues that video games are the canaries in the censorship mines. If the law is upheld, it could open the way for similar regulation of violent movies, music and other media, according to the brief.

That argument and many others are expected to be filed before Friday night's deadline for submission of "friend-of-the-court" briefs in a case that has riveted more than just those in the $25 billion U.S. video game industry.

"The first amendment is indivisible," said Robert Corn-Revere, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine, the law firm representing the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. "If it’s weakened for one medium, it’s weakened for all. If a precedent is established for the censorship of games, it will be used for everybody else. You’ll see a lot of support for our position from different quarters."

Those quarters are expected to be the Movie Picture Assn. of America, the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the several non-profit news organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Radio Television News Assn.

Janet Jackson's 2004 wardrobe malfunction on CBS aside, the comic book industry is likely to be the most simpatico with the predicament now facing video games.

In 1949, 14 states had pending legislation to ban the sale of comic books to minors, the result of popular "moral panic" stirred by "crusaders," according to the brief from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Could the present California law, which never went into effect because of the legal challenges filed against it by the game industry, bleed into movies, music, news and even books?

Michael McConnell, a constitutional law professor at Stanford Law School and a former federal judge, says the danger is real, but remote.

"I think [the Supreme Court justices] are going to take a good hard look at this, be tempted by the common sense of the statute, but leave well enough alone," McConnell said. "Tampering with free speech doctrine carries high costs with unpredictable effects."

But McConnell added that the high court rarely grants a hearing to a case that has been unanimously rejected in lower federal courts unless its Justices have an interest in reviewing, or reversing, the prevailing case law.

"This isn’t something that’s impervious to change," he said.

-- Alex Pham

Photo: Photographers Against Censorship logo. Credit: Ozma via Flickr.


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