St. Louis Legislation Is Unconstitutional

Video Game Law Blog

June 03, 2003

(This is an archived case summary.)

This case challenged the constitutionality of an ordinance of St.Louis County, which made it unlawful to knowingly sell, rent, make available, or permit the "free play" of violent video games.

The action was brought by various video game companies which alleged that the ordinance improperly restricts free speech. 

St. Louis defended the ordinance on the basis that 1) games do not contain sufficient expression to constitute speech; 2) even if games do constitute speech, they are "obscene" to minors; 3) there are compelling reasons for the Ordinance and it is the least restrictive means available; 4) the games should be treated as content-neutral; and 5) the Ordinance is not vague.

The court didn't buy these arguments and ruled that the Ordinance violated the First Amendment. The court concluded that "in most circumstances, the values protected by the First Amendment are no less applicable when the government seeks to control the flow of information to minors." The court struck down the Ordinance as unconstitutional.

The County argued that since video games require mostly player-controlled action and the story lines are often ignored, games should enjoy a lesser standard of protection. The court rejected this argument, stating that in today's technological age a viewer could also take any action-packed DVD movie like "Charlie's Angels" and skip right to the violent parts.

The County did not have any substantial empirical evidence linking violence in video games to acts of violence committed by minors, or supporting its belief that violent videogames cause psychological harm to minors. The court stated that "where [a] First Amendment right is at stake, the Government must present more than anecdote and supposition."  The County could notsimply surmise that it is serving a compelling state interest because "[s]ociety in general believes that continued exposure to violence can be harmful to children". However, the court made it clear that had such empirical evidence been present, it would have been more inclined to hold the ordinance constitutional.

Interactive Digital Software Association et al. v. St. Louis County, Missouri, et al.
2003, US Ct. of Appeal, 8th Cir.
329 F.3d 954
Summarized by Danielle Park