The Supreme Court, St. Paul, and violent video games

The U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether California can ban certain video games.

This should be an interesting case, given that last week the high court overturned efforts to prevent the sale of videos of women crushing cuddly animals and dogs and other animals fighting to the death. (Aside: National Public Radio was one of the groups that filed briefs to overturn the law, and today its ombudsman explained why)

Is Grand Theft Auto worse than that?

The law never took effect because the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — the most overturned federal court in the land — ruled that the law violates the 1st and 14th amendments.

Want a preview of the Supreme Court arguments? Here’s the audio of the debate before the California court.

And here’s a pdf of the court’s decision.

You may note that the City of St. Paul has a role in the court’s decision. The 9th Circuit cited a 1992 Supreme Court decision which overturned the conviction of a teenager for burning a cross on the lawn of an African American St. Paul family– Russ and Laura Jones and their five children.

The teen was convicted under the St. Paul bias-crimes ordinance, which said:

Whoever places on public or private property, a symbol, object, appellation, characterization or graffiti, including, but not limited to, a burning cross or Nazi swastika, which one knows or has reasonable grounds to know arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender commits disorderly conduct and shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

It was, Justice Scalia wrote at the time, an overly broad restriction of content:

Although the phrase in the ordinance, “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others,” has been limited by the Minnesota Supreme Court’s construction to reach only those symbols or displays that amount to “fighting words,” the remaining, unmodified terms make clear that the ordinance applies only to “fighting words” that insult, or provoke violence, “on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.” Displays containing abusive invective, no matter how vicious or severe, are permissible unless they are addressed to one of the specified disfavored topics. Those who wish to use “fighting words” in connection with other ideas — to express hostility, for example, on the basis of political affiliation, union membership, or homosexuality — are not covered. The First Amendment does not permit St. Paul to impose special prohibitions on those speakers who express views on disfavored subjects.

The case led the Supreme Court to say that content-based restrictions are presumed to be invalid.

And aside: The attorney for the defendant in the cross-burning case — Edward J. Cleary — went on to author “Beyond the Burning Cross,” and now is the assistant chief judge in Ramsey County.