Supreme Court hears arguments on violent video game law

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF; merit briefs] Tuesday in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report] on whether the First Amendment [text] permits any limits on offensive content in violent video games sold to minors, and whether a state regulation for displaying offensive, harmful images to children is invalid if it fails to satisfy the exacting "strict scrutiny" standard of review. California Civil Code sections 1746-1746.5 [text] prohibit the sale of violent video games to minors under 18 where a reasonable person would find that the violent content appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors, is patently offensive to prevailing community standards as to what is suitable for minors and causes the game as a whole to lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] the district court's judgment permanently enjoining enforcement of the prohibition. Counsel for California urged the court "to adopt a rule of law that permits States to restrict minors' ability to purchase deviant, violent video games that the legislature has determined can be harmful to [their] development," drawing distinctions between video games and other media such as books, movies or music. Counsel for the respondents argued against creating any kind of First Amendment exception for violent video games. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Breyer and Alito appeared to support California's arguments while Justices Scalia, Ginsburg and Sotomayor repeatedly raised free speech concerns.

The court also heard arguments in Sossamon v. Texas [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report] on whether an individual may sue a state or state official in his official capacity for damages for violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act [42 USC § 2000cc text], which grants prisoners permission to obtain injunctive and declaratory relief against the government when it imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a inmate. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed [opinion, PDF] a grant of summary judgment in favor of Texas and ordered further proceedings to determine if Texas had exceeded its bounds under the act by prohibiting Harvey Sossamon to use the prison chapel for Christian worship, even though it was available for other uses. Counsel for Sossamon argued that damages are an appropriate remedy. Counsel for the US government argued as amicus curiae on behalf of the petitioner. Counsel for Texas argued that the ambiguous phrase "appropriate relief" does not permit damages.

In Staub v. Proctor Hospital [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the court heard arguments on whether an employer may be held liable based on the unlawful intent of officials who caused or influenced but did not make the ultimate employment decision. Vincent Staub sued his former employer under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) [text] for wrongful termination. The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled [opinion, PDF] that the unlawful intent of the officials who allegedly brought about Staub's dismissal could not be attributed to the employer. Counsel for Staub argued:

The dismissal of an employee is often the result of the interrelated actions and decisions of several officials. Whether an employer is legally responsible for any particular official and his or her actions and decisions turns on agency law. Congress legislates against a background of agency law and is presumed to have intended agency principles to govern that kind of question. Agency law, not the Eleventh Circuit's "cat's paw" doctrine, is the controlling standard here.
Counsel for the US government argued on behalf of Staub as amicus curiae. Counsel for the respondent argued that the Seventh Circuit applied the correct standard.

 

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