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Boston Globe Online / Living | Arts
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Appeals court holds key in battle over regulation of violent video games

By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 10/2/2002

To one side, violent video games such as ''Doom,'' and ''Fear Effect'' are like cigarettes, harmful products made by a cynical industry that needs government regulation. To the other side, the games have become First Amendment symbols in a war against censorship and of the intrusion of individual morality into public policy.

Which view prevails will be determined when the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit rules on whether the sale or rental of graphically violent video games to minors without parental consent is a crime in the case of Interactive Digital Software Association v. St. Louis County, Missouri. If St. Louis County becomes the first jurisdiction to successfully enact such a regulation, this litigation could define the boundaries of the First Amendment and give powerful legal weight to the argument that exposure to media-generated violence is linked to violence in society.

''It's a huge case,'' said Daphne White, executive director of The Lion & Lamb Project, an advocacy group that opposes violent children's entertainment. ''This is not a First Amendment issue at all, and it's not a censorship issue. It's an issue about giving parents a chance when they go up against the industry.''

''This is fundamentally ... a case about the Constitutional status of video games and our belief that regulation of this sort doesn't pass Constitutional muster,'' said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA). ''The entertaiment industries are easy targets. ... People want to believe the problem of violence in this country is easily solved by making less violent video games and movies.''

The case stems from an ordinance passed by the St. Louis County Council in 2000 that created penalities for businesses that allowed minors access to video games with ''harmful'' violent content without parental consent. (There is an industry rating system for the games, but it is designed only to inform consumers and carries no regulatory clout.) The IDSA challenged that ordinance, and earlier this year, US District Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh - the uncle of talk host Rush Limbaugh - ruled for the county. That ordinance, which is on hold pending the outcome of the case, closely mirrors a recent effort by the city of Indianapolis that was overtuned last year by the Seventh Circuit Appeals Court.

Now, all eyes are on the Eighth Circuit court that will soon hear the appeal of Limbaugh's decision. For one thing, Congressman Joe Baca (D-Calif.) proposed a federal version of the St. Louis measure after Limbaugh's ruling. And a difference of opinion between the Eighth and Seventh Circuit Courts could make it more likely that the Supreme Court would tackle the issue.

''That's what makes the Eighth Circuit case so important,'' said Scott Chinn, the Indianapolis city attorney.

Intertwined with the argument about whether the games deserve First Amendment protection is the hot-button issue that has been debated for years in media, scientific, and political circles. Does exposure to violent media imagery create a more violent society?

One weapon in the arsenal of those arguing for a correlation between video violence and aggression is a July 2000 joint statement from groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Medical Association, concluding ''that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children.''

''The political question [of regulating these games] is something the public in general needs to debate, but it needs to be done in the context of scientific facts,'' said Craig Anderson, the chairman of Iowa State University's psychology department whose testimony helped sway the Limbaugh decision. ''I tell parents, ` You need to take control of your children's electronic diets.' For what it's worth, it would take a lot of convincing to convince me this is a First Amendment issue.''

On Sept. 24, a group of 33 media scholars - including Amherst College dean and professor Francis Couvares and Henry Jenkins, director of MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program - filed a legal brief on behalf of IDSA, arguing that ''censorship laws based on bogus claims that science has proved harm from violent entertainment deflect attention from the real causes of violence.'' Jonathan Freedman, a University of Toronto professor of psychology whose work is cited by the scholars, said the science ''doesn't prove exposure to media violence causes aggression. Given how much research has been done, you have to conclude either there is no effect at all or it is vanishingly small.''

Lurking not far below the legal and scientific rhetoric surrounding the case is a philosophical chasm that has each side accusing the other of a kind of cultural arrogance. ''It drives these people crazy that Judge Limbaugh thought these games are not protected by the First Amendment,'' said St. Louis County associate counselor Michael Shuman. ''Why is that right superior to the right of the parent to make decisions for their kids?''

''The legislators who would like to censor violent media content'' are arguing ''based on a notion of moral harm or moralism,'' said Marjorie Heins, the director of the Free Expression Policy Project. ''I think the media scholars who are challenging this erroneous, if conventional, wisdom have their work cut out for them.''

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 10/2/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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