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City Gives Up Violent-Video Fight

Courts strike down bid by Indianapolis to prevent kids from playing coin-operated games

THURSDAY, Nov. 8, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Stung by unsympathetic appeals court justices and rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, Indianapolis is giving up on its bid to become the first city in the country to prevent kids from playing violent coin-operated video games.

Instead, city officials hope to convince arcade owners to voluntarily disclose how many violent games they have on hand. The new plan is a far cry from the summer of 2000, when a mayoral spokesman said Indianapolis had taken a step toward stopping a "culture of violence."

At issue is an Indianapolis law that banned minors from playing violent video games without parental permission. Mayor Bart Peterson pushed for the regulations after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.

The law specifically targeted video games with depictions of sexual content or violent acts like bloodshed, amputation and decapitation.

The final blow for the city came last week, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that threw out the video game restrictions. The high court's decision means that the regulations cannot be revived, at least in the Midwest area covered by the lower court.

The city isn't making apologies. "We wanted to protect children from violent images," says Jo Lynn Garing, a spokeswoman for Peterson. "We believe that many of these extremely violent video games should be treated similarly to pornography."

A district judge upheld the law, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Chicago, sent the city back to the drawing board. The city didn't show that it had the necessary "compelling" grounds to limit the First Amendment rights of children by preventing them from seeing violent imagery, the court said.

Video games aren't different from works of literature, movies or TV shows, the judges said in their ruling. "Violence has always been and remains a central interest of humankind and a recurrent, even obsessive theme of culture both high and low," the court said. "To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it."

The court added that studies cited by the city provided no evidence that violent video games are any more harmful than violent movies or other forms of entertainment.

"There's not a shred of evidence to link coin-operated video games to violence anywhere," says Washington D.C. attorney Elliott Portnoy, who represents video game manufacturers and arcade owners.

Portnoy says the law could have devastated arcades in Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County, which are governed as one. The city and county are home to 800,000 people.

Portnoy acknowledged that the appeal court's decision isn't valid in St. Louis County, Missouri, which has passed a similar ordinance that restricts the sale, rental and display of violent video games to minors. Unlike the Indianapolis law, it also targets video games that are played at home.

Video game manufacturers and operators have already challenged the St. Louis law. "There's fairly broad recognition that an ordinance of this type doesn't pass constitutional muster," Portnoy says.

If parents are concerned about violent video games, they should pay attention to the seven-year-old ratings system that was put in place by manufacturers, Portnoy says. "They can use that system as a tool to make informed decisions about the games the children may be exposed to."

The city of Indianapolis plans to do just that. It will ask arcades about how many games they have with "red stickers," meaning those that were rated as having high levels of violence. The city will then post its findings on the Internet.

Although arcades can choose to not participate, the city hopes they will. "The video game industry has long said it wants to work with parents and cooperate with city officials to protect children from negative influences," Mayor Peterson says in a statement. "Today, we are holding them to that promise."

What To Do

Read this policy statement on media violence, including video games, from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Learn about the video game industry's rating system in this Q&A from the American Amusement Machine Association.

SOURCES: Interviews with Elliott Portnoy, attorney representing American Amusement Machine Association and Amusement and Music Operators Association, Washington D.C.; Jo Lynn Garing, spokeswoman, office of Mayor Bart Peterson, Indianapolis; Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision
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