Common Sense Media fires opening salvo in battle over California law banning sale of violent games to kids

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Common Sense Media, a San Francisco family-advocacy organization, this week lobbed the first of what is likely to be many grenades thrown from all sides as a controversial California law banning the sale of violent video games to kids heads to the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.

The organization’s chief executive, James P. Steyer, on Monday sent a pointed letter urging Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff not to sign on to a brief to the Supreme Court opposing the ban. Shurtleff, though a spokesman, declined to comment.

Why is an official of another state pivotal to the fate of a California law?

To answer that, there are three things to know:

1) What it is: The bill, signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, prohibits the sale or rental of violent video games to anyone under the age of 18. The law was declared unconstitutional in 2009 by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in a case entitled Schwarzenegger vs. the Entertainment Merchants Assn. Here’s a list of the relevant court briefs.


2) Why it’s a big deal: The case, which the Supreme Court in April agreed to review sometime during its upcoming session, has the potential to affect other media, such as violent movies and music with explicit lyrics. Constitutional legal experts also are watching the case closely to see how the high court will weigh 1st Amendment rights to free speech against parents’ ability to decide what types of media their children consume.

3) What’s next: Prepare for war. Lining up on one side are Schwarzenegger, California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, Common Sense Media, the American Medical Assn. and state Sen. Leland Yee, who drafted the legislation. On the other side of the battlefield are game companies, the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Up for grabs: dozens of state attorneys general who are being asked to sign on to the brief opposing the California law. This brings us back to Utah and Shurtleff, who is the first of several attorneys general to be intensely lobbied by both sides. In Shurtleff’s case, the fight could prove awkward. Five years ago, he sought to block the release of a video game called ’25 to Life,’ saying in a news release that it ‘glorifies murdering police officers.’

Scott Troxel, spokesman for Shurtleff, said the attorney general ‘can’t comment until a decision has been made on whether or not to join the court brief.’

Steyer’s bluntly worded letter stopped short of accusing Shurtleff of being a hypocrite. Here’s an excerpt:

‘We’ve been told that you and the state of Utah are thinking about supporting the video game industry by signing on to an amicus brief opposing the law passed in California. We find this perplexing given that the mission on your Web site states that your office is especially focused ‘on protecting children’ and your bio on Twitter states ‘I am focused on protecting children, families and the citizens of Utah.’ It is hard to believe that someone making these statements would support the video game industry’s anti-child safety position ...’

Consider the letter an opening shot in what is bound to be a hard-fought battle to prosecute a California law in the court of public opinion as well as before the highest court in the land.

-- Alex Pham