Letters to the Editor

Parents don't need law to parent

Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Monday in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

First crush videos and dogfighting depictions, now "Postal," "Manhunt" and "Grand Theft Auto" whatever iteration they're on.

What is up with the U.S. Supreme Court?

Just days after striking down a federal law that made it a crime to even possess animal cruelty videos, the court said it would take on another First Amendment sizzler -- California's ban on selling violent video games to minors.

The justices will decide whether gaming violence is as obscene as grossly graphic sexual images and, therefore, not constitutionally protected from government restrictions.

The First Amendment generally prevents the government from limiting access to movies, video games and other kinds of entertainment, and from punishing the makers and sellers based on the content of the material.

Usually the court will uphold a content-based restriction only if it's the least-restrictive way to achieve a compelling objective.

For instance, the court has said protecting children is a compelling objective, so the government can require libraries receiving federal technology funds to install Internet filters on their computers or lose that funding.

On the other hand, the court ruled in April that a federal law aimed at "crush videos" depicting animals being tortured and killed was too broad because it would also cover hunting films.

California officials don't just want the justices to decide that, in the balance of interests, it's more important to protect children than video-game companies' free speech. California argues that the most violent video games have no redeeming social value at all when viewed by children and therefore no First Amendment protection whatsoever.

It's a bold jump, but not implausible, if you believe mindless violence is as corrupting and inappropriate for kids as the vilest forms of sexually explicit material, which the court has said can be banned.

From a legal standpoint, it's not so straightforward.

Patently sexual material that appeals to prurient interests and has no artistic, scientific or literary value is called obscenity and isn't constitutionally protected. The court has said some offensive material is legal for adults but can be kept from children.

Lower courts have struck down 10 attempts by states and local governments to ban the sale of violent video games to children.

California says there's "growing evidence that these games harm minors and that industry self-regulation through the existing rating system has proven ineffective."

But the industry counters that it's easier for minors to buy R-rated DVDs or explicit CDs than M-rated video games and that the newest game consoles let parents limit the games their children can play based on their ratings.

The courts that struck down the California law found that video games aren't more harmful than violent images on TV, movies and Internet sites, most of which the government can't regulate without running into the same First Amendment problems.

California officials told the Supreme Court that letting states treat extremely violent material the same as sexually explicit material would "allow states like California to give parents, rather than store clerks and industry groups, control over the decision to allow children to purchase extremely violent video games."

The problem with this argument is that parents already have more control over their minor children's purchases than clerks and industry groups: It's the power to say "no." After the court hears arguments in this case in the fall, it might say the Constitution lets states help parents out. But parents don't need to wait that long to exercise that right.