Analysis: What today's Supreme Court decision means to us

In 2005, California state legislature passed Assembly Bill 1179, a law penned by Democratic state senator Leland Yee which prohibited the sale of violent video games to minors. The law mandated the application of special stickers to titles deemed too violent, and slapped retail employees who sold those games to anyone under the age of 18 with a maximum $1,000 fine. The law was signed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but was struck down by the United States District Court for the Northern District of California before it could be enforced.

Following an unsuccessful appeal of that decision in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the law's progenitors petitioned for a hearing in the United States Supreme Court. The petition was successful, the case was argued last November and, earlier today, seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices decided to uphold the decision of the lower courts: California Assembly Bill 1179 violates the First Amendment rights afforded to all forms of media in the United States.

This decision obviously doesn't just affect Californian teenagers with a penchant for video games above their maturity level. It represents a vote of confidence in games and the non-governmental agency (see: The ESRB) which regulates their sale.

The depiction of this sort of case as a "rite of passage" for the medium wouldn't be too far off base. Comic books, films and literature have all had their rights assailed by individuals, institutions and lower courts -- almost all of which were summarily overturned by the Supreme Court, ensuring their future protection under the First Amendment.

The issue at hand during the Supreme Court hearing wasn't whether "violent" games -- a term never explicitly defined by the original California law -- were harmful to minors. The issue was whether video games qualified as a form of protection-worthy expression; an issue which the Supreme Court handily settles in the syllabus of their full opinion:
Video games qualify for First Amendment protection. Like protected books, plays, and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium. And "the basic principles of freedom of speech . . . do not vary" with a new and different communication medium.
That very excerpt proves the broader importance of today's decision: In Constitutional law, precedent enforces precedent, as evidenced by the quote in that opening thesis, which was pulled from the Supreme Court's opinion that films deserve First Amendment protections in Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson (1952).

Of course, the Supreme Court's decision was just as much a victory for the First Amendment as it was for video games. Laws which prohibit expression can be upheld provided they satisfy "strict scrutiny," a form of review which determines whether a prohibitive law serves a compelling government interest, cannot be broadly used to prohibit other forms of expression and cannot be achieved by a less restrictive piece of legislation. AB-1179, with its weak evidential backing and ambiguous terminology, failed to meet those standards.

Regardless of how the decision was reached, the establishment of a precedent (or, as is the somewhat radical term in the case of a Supreme Court opinion, a superprecedent) which classifies games as forms of protectable expression is a major victory for the industry. It will hopefully ensure the outright dismissal of future cases prohibiting the sale of mature games, and will prevent more government resources (such as your hard-earned tax dollars) from being squandered on said cases.

Games aren't going to become more or less violent because of the Supreme Court's opinion. But, ultimately, that's the big victory games claimed with today's decision: The medium is going to continue to shift and grow without continued interference from its detractors. The determination of what content belongs in our games is now a decision to be made solely by their creators -- what comes next is entirely up to them.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.