Dirty Deals Abridge Freedom of Speech

California ban of violent video games must go, headlines the piece by Activision Blizzard’s George Rose in the San Francisco Chronicle. While Rose is correct that California’s censorship law is unconstitutional and the Supreme Court should bury it so deep no other states keep trying to get away with such a travesty, one portion of his remarks disappointed me the New Year’s Eve because they underscore the government’s bullying that results in self-censorship. Rose remarked:

“Schwarzenegger vs. EMA properly raised the same First Amendment issues regarding freedom of expression that successfully struck down similar restrictions in other states. But it also underscored that this law and similar ones are hopelessly out of date now that industry pledges to Congress are fulfilled to work with retailers to enact strict ratings systems. So for the underage kid whose parents don’t approve of a mature-rated game, buying on the sly at a major retailer is virtually impossible.

“It makes no sense for California to put in place a costly state bureaucracy to replace a privately funded system that is working. The industry’s ratings partnership has been thoroughly tested and praised by the Federal Trade Commission as thorough and effective.”

So what is this about “industry pledges to Congress” and pride that “the industry’s ratings partnership has been thoroughly tested and praised by the Federal Trade Commission”? Congress (and individual lawmakers like Sen. Joe Lieberman) has no business badgering the industry to self-censor in ways that Congress cannot do directly. The FTC has no business “testing” the industry’s ratings of its own speech.

When faced with a constitutional prohibition against censoring speech, Joe Lieberman is one of the first to use threats of doing just that as a means of arm-twisting his targets into themselves doing what no law could force them to do. Like “nuisance lawsuits” in which someone files suit on a baseless claim, with the expectation that it will be cheaper for the defendant to settle than litigate, Senator Lieberman and the FTC skirt their obligation to uphold the law, knowing it is cheaper for video game publishers to agree to censor themselves rather than have to engage in costly litigation to overturn such excesses.

It is high time our elected officials and government agencies took to heart their obligations to uphold the Constitution. Certainly, their flippant contempt for the Constitution does more harm than any violent video game ever could.

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