Over the past month, Republicans have made the case that First Amendment protections differ depending on what speech is being protected. They’ve thus implied suppressing the First Amendment is warranted when that appears to shield the Second Amendment from attackers. The target of their defense in the wake of the Feb. 14 Florida school shooting? The video game industry.
This likely wasn’t the plan. Bias against video games is so pervasive and so uncritically examined, it might as well be subconscious. Nevertheless, Republicans and the National Rifle Association have for years tried to attach at least partial blame for school shootings to video games.
Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin reignited the constitutionally dubious talking point Feb. 15 in a radio interview. He said, in part, “These are quote-unquote video games, and they’re forced down our throats under the guise of protected speech.” It’s unclear if Bevin is questioning the Supreme Court by using the word “guise,” or if he’s just unaware of the rulings. Regardless, viewing video games as “garbage” doesn’t mean you get to ignore the Constitution.
Republican Florida Rep. Brian Mast had this to say Feb. 16: “The biggest pusher of violence is, hands down, Hollywood movies, hands down, the video game market … The societal impacts of people being desensitized to killing in ways that are different than how somebody that was on the battlefield is desensitized is troubling and very different.”
We Shouldn’t Sacrifice Either Right, Thanks
Mast implies a need for some sort of censorship when he vilifies gaming so directly. This is reinforced by his far more demure answer immediately after, when asked about physical guns. The ultimate message: Focus on clamping down on video games and entertainment, not guns. Less First Amendment, more Second.
Republican Rhode Island state Rep. Robert Nardolillo III also attacked free speech. He is seeking to introduce legislation to tax certain video games based on their ESRB rating. Thankfully, the bill is most likely dead on arrival due to First Amendment protections.
Then, President Donald Trump chimed in two times to make the unfounded suggestion that video games cause violence. Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn echoed his sentiments. Both advocated for action against gaming. Trump later held a rushed meeting with members of the video game industry and anti-gaming advocates. The underlying threat of that meeting was potential congressional or executive action against video games—and against free speech.
Following the meeting, Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell, an anti-gaming attendee, attempted to paint the gaming industry as a social rot eating at our youth. The underlying argument again being stifling free speech.
The Supreme Court Says Games Are Free Speech
Most Republicans who assaulted the video game industry after the Florida rampage unintentionally made the argument that they’re willing to destroy freedom of speech to protect the right to bear arms. They don’t view video games or the industry as legitimate, and the effect is that they seemingly ignore or forget that the Supreme Court ruled on more than one occasion that video games are free speech and therefore protected.
These Supreme Court decisions received warm support from conservative stalwarts like the late justice Antonin Scalia. He delivered the majority opinion in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass’n:
Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices … That suffices to confer First Amendment protection … Under our Constitution, “esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature . . . are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree.
These Republicans attacked video games to deflect from the gun debate. So do Republicans care more about the Second Amendment than the First? Probably not, but they are doing themselves a disservice with their dogged, blind loyalty to talking points about guns. They don’t know what they don’t know, but that’s fixable if they’re willing to learn.
Republicans need to take into account the size and scope of the gaming industry. They need to take the time to learn how e-sports is engaging America’s youth, bringing them together and connecting people all over the world. America’s cultural shift can’t be stopped because a select few politicians think video games are silly. For millions across the planet, it is a very important part of their life. But for the citizens of the United States, it is something more: a freedom enshrined in our founding.