Violent Video Games And The Rights Of Parents

Violent Video Games And The Rights Of Parents

In this essay originally penned for First Things, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput discusses the recent Supreme Court decision that granted video games First Amendment protection. Opening with his memories of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, Chaput is clearly against the decision.

Twelve years have passed, but very few Coloradans have forgotten the name of Columbine High School. I spent the days after the April 20, 1999, Columbine school massacre with my brother priests, burying the dead, visiting the families of victims and trying to make sense of the violence to the wider community. On May 4 that year I spoke to a special session of the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The Committee’s focus was “marketing violence to children.” Among my comments were these:

The reasonable person understands that what we eat, drink, and breathe will make us healthy or sick. In like manner, what we hear and what we see lifts us up – or drags us down. It forms us inside. Pornography degrades women. It also coarsens men. I don’t need to prove that because we all know it. It’s common sense . . . The roots of violence in our culture are much more complicated than just bad rock lyrics or brutal screenplays . . . But common sense tells us that the violence of our music, our video games, our films, and our television has to go somewhere, and it goes straight into the hearts of our children to bear fruit in ways we can’t imagine – until something like [Columbine]happens.

I recalled those words as I read Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 27 decision, Brown v EMA striking down a California law that banned the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. Scalia, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, Kennedy, and Sotomayor grants that certain categories of expression-obscenity, incitement, and fighting words-are excluded from First Amendment protection. But because violent video games fall outside these narrow categories, they cannot be banned.

Scalia is a skilled, persuasive thinker. Given the country’s bizarre political climate wherein certain kinds of religious teaching are now attacked as hate speech, Catholics might be grateful to the Court for reaffirming limits on what lawmakers can and cannot ban. But Justice Scalia dismisses the differing views on the Court too quickly. Those views have weight. They deserve attention.

Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, issued a separate Brown opinion. It’s worth reading. Alito agrees with the Court in overturning the California law on the much narrower ground that the law’s definition of violent video games is “impermissibly vague.” But he argues-I think convincingly-that the impact of playing violent video games may be different in kind from “reading a description of violence in a work of literature . . . listening to the radio or watching a movie or a television show.” Video games can simulate, and potentially stimulate, violence in a far more intensely immersive way than traditional media. In the words of former army officer and author of On Killing, David Grossman, the worst of these games are “murder simulators.” Grossman is not alone in his views.

Thus, for Justice Alito, the Court makes a serious mistake in too quickly lumping violent video games under the same protections given Grimm’s Fairy Tales or network TV. In the Alito-Roberts view, the Court should not act prematurely in blocking efforts to deal with what some (in fact, many) people believe to be “a significant and developing social problem.”

My point here is not that video games are bad. My point is that when we too readily stretch an individual’s right to free speech to include a corporation’s right to sell violence to minors, we collude in poisoning our own future-and tragedies like Columbine are the indirect but brutally real proof of what I mean. We also undermine the intent of our nation’s own Founders and Framers. Justice Scalia describes himself as an “originalist” in his constitutional thinking. But in Brown, Justice Clarence Thomas seems far closer to the original intent of the Framers in his dissenting opinion.

Thomas argues that “the practices and beliefs of the [nation’s]founding generation establish that ‘the freedom of speech,’ as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.” For Thomas, “history clearly shows a founding generation that believed parents to have complete authority over their minor children and expected parents to direct the development of those children . . . In light of this history, the Framers could not possibly have understood ‘the freedom of speech’ to include an unqualified right to speak to minors”-or, by extension, to sell them murder simulators.

Thomas also notes that the Court itself has admitted that some legitimate exclusions from First Amendment protection may exist that have not yet been dealt with in the Court’s case law. Parents’ authority over the messaging to their minor children, for Thomas, is just such a First Amendment exception.

In practice, Brown extends and elevates the individual’s right to free expression – or in this case, a corporation’s right to make a healthy profit-at the expense of family sovereignty, the natural rights of parents and the intent of the Constitution’s authors. It doesn’t matter whether California lawmakers were thinking high and noble thoughts about the family or not. For Thomas, they were doing their job in a constitutionally appropriate way. In the end, Justice Thomas’ reasoning is well grounded in historical precedent. His opinion seems far closer to the intent of the founding generation than the views of the Court majority. Coincidentally, it is also much closer to the Christian understanding of natural law and natural rights.

Brown is now a matter of record. But it’s an occasion to remember Aquinas’ principle that good laws help to make us good. All law serves-or should serve-the dual purpose of protecting the dignity of the human person and advancing the common good. Law should support us as we struggle to fulfil our human vocations. A law which respects mothers and fathers trying to make good choices for their family does just that.

Reprinted with the permission of the Archdiocese of Denver and First Things.

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop of Denver.


  • Sir, your argument depends on one of your last statements: “Trying to make good choices”. My parents made good choices for me, and they didn’t need government help. They bothered to raise me properly. They took the time and the effort to instil good values into me. They did not need the government’s help to do that, nor have most families in Western nations for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

    Any half decent parent should be able to raise their child properly. I know of thousands of very decent, rational, noble, non-violent human beings who played video games. Many of my lab colleagues play video games, some of them quite violent in nature – are they ravenous beasts? Are they murderous, rebellious anarchists? No!

    1) Any half decent parent can raise a child. My parents did so. My friends parents did so. All without government oversight.

    2) There are far, far, far, far, FAR worse things in this world than video games. Alcohol, for starters. I’ve seen more lives ruined due to alcohol than I have ever seen ruined by a video game. I am aware that the church does try to take the time to fight alcohol addiction – perhaps it should spend more time doing that, instead of going after video games, which are harmless.

    3) Video games have not been shown to cause harm – sure, a few studies have shown that some children are mildly more aggressive after playing video games, but the effect is incredibly mild and transitory and no worse than watching a mild action-orientated Saturday morning cartoon. I’ve done some (admittedly limited) research on this topic – and in all cases any “effect” a violent video game had on a kid was incredibly small. I played violent video games as a kid – to this date, I have no criminal record, I don’t even litter, I don’t drink alcohol and I have a Master’s Degree. Video games sure didn’t affect MY LIFE negatively! In fact, it kept me at home, where I belonged, and off the street and out of the bars and clubs.

    4) Columbine was NOT caused by video games. Every SINGLE study into the Columbine massacre puts the blame on two things: Bullying and Social Neglect. The Columbine kids were bullied relentlessly and cruelly. That DOESN’T excuse what they did, not by a long shot, but video games are not the cause of Columbine. Millions of American kids play violent video games – millions of american kids haven’t shot up their school. All school shooters are invariably revealed to be mentally ill loners who have been ostracised or set apart from society. The Virginia Tech Shooter wasn’t inspired by video games – he was mentally ill and had trouble fitting in. If you want to stop school shooters, perhaps you should encourage community relations and ensure that the mentally ill get treatment. That would go a LONG WAY to stopping more school shootings than banning video games.

    5) Violence is not a new thing. A simple glance at history reveals that humans have been violent for as long as there have been humans. Sullah and Marius had no vidjama-games. Genghis Khan had no Vidjama-games. Hitler had no Nintendo. The Catholic Inquistors and the Spanish religious persecutors in South America weren’t playing their Playstations. The “Good Ol’ Boy” Gay Lynchers and African American killers in the South weren’t on Xbox Live.

    Violence is caused by social neglect, poverty and a lack of parenting as well as authoritarianism (sometimes even RELIGIOUS authoritarianism. You can’t pretend the church has an exactly blemish free history). Not video games.

  • Oh, and by the way when I say “African American” killers, I am referring to the racists who lynched the African Americans during the 50’s and the 60’s. Most of whom saw themselves as good ol’ christians.

  • He keeps going on about family sovereignty, but doesn’t this maintain family sovereignty by allowing parents to buy their kids violent games if they want to?

  • This decision is no a victory for the video game industry or mature game apologists.

    It is a victory against parents who would have a nanny state raise their children in their stead.

  • I don’t know what to say, but “leave it to religion to agree with something before they even understand it.”

    Clarence Thomas statement is so right while being so incredibly wrong. He got that parents are supposed to direct their children and raise them, but he makes the case in such a painfully dated way that government should do that in place of parents. What an awfully contradictory statement!

    If the government starts doing parents job for them, how is that going to encourage parents to parent? That’s a strange turn of logic for an American conservative to make.

  • another uninformed ignorant opinion based on mass-media hype instead of informed study. And this one from the church, too. Sigh

  • I particularly enjoy the blanket stupidity of this statement: “I don’t need to prove that because we all know it.”

    There are many things that people once knew, Thalidomide was harmless to pregnant women, the Titanic was unsinkable, smoking tobacco eased respiratory problems, Iraq has WMDs, AIDS was only dangerous to gay men, Gary Glitter was a nice guy, Uri Geller has psychic powers, the list goes on.

    I think Bowling for Columbine made it very clear there was far more going on than the media these guys enjoyed. Marilyn Manson made more sense than this guy.

    All up his essay is a rambling heart string tugger (and he calls Scalia a skilled, persuader!) designed to muffle the mind and coerce those who aren’t informed on the matter. Far too much ‘fight for the children, oppose the evil corporations!’ rhetoric.

    • Exactly this.

      I’m highly skeptical of any argument founded on “societal wisdom” or even “common sense”.

      His argument is founded on ‘natural law’ and ‘family sovereignty’, which have a much more zealous interpretation and assume an absolute legal code that doesn’t exist in reality.

  • “Common sense” isn’t right when it flies in the face of empirical evidence. “Monkey See, Monkey Do” logic may apply to monkeys, but not human beings.

    If porn degrades women and coarsens men, why has an increase in access to hardcore pornography been correlated with a DECREASE in rape? (see: ).

    Japan has the lowest rates of sex crimes in the OECD. It also has very, very nasty pornography of a whole wide range of varieties avaliable relatively easily. If porn causes sex crime, why does Japan have a low rate of sex crimes? Hell, Japan has Lolicon and Shotacon (fictional kiddy-porn), the study I cited above actually shows the ‘more porn less rape’ correlation even goes for child sex crimes (creepy, I know).

    Violent video game use has been increasing rapidly, yet youth violence is far lower these days than it was in the early 90’s.

    As for the point on whether or not the individual right to free speech somehow conflicts with the right of a corporation to sell a video game, lets look at a fact here; corporations-as-persons may be a legal fiction but each corporation is made up of INDIVIDUALS. Individuals don’t suddenly lose their individual-ness when they voluntarily decide to collaborate with others. The right of corporate entities (profit or non-profit) to free speech is a derivative of the right to free speech of the individual members of the entity.

    Lets take a classic phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

    In other words, an entity formed from a group of people can indeed have ‘rights’ (powers) if the people within that group VOLUNTARILY (consensually) give the entity that kind of power. Since investing in a corporation (or any kind of business entity) is a voluntary decision then I think its fair to say there is no conflict between individual rights to free speech and the right of group-based entities to free speech (if you invest in a corporation, said corporation donates to Candidate Y and you support Candidate X, then you’re welcome to sell your stock).

    The only way you can manufacture a conflict between individual speech and group-based speech made by a VOLUNTARY group is by treating a group entity as something that exists independently of the individuals that make it up, i.e. Epistemological Platonism.

    Oh wait, Chaput’s a priest, of COURSE he’s a Platonist!

    Either way, for a Roman Catholic priest to even dare to invoke the Founding Fathers and their Enlightenment, Classically Liberal beliefs in defense of his position is obscene; few organizations have been so unremittingly hostile towards the ideals of the Enlightenment as the Roman Catholic Church (note, I’m talking here about the clerics, most Catholic laity in the Western world are perfectly sane people).

    I agree that Thomas’s dissent is a correct understanding of Originalist jurisprudence. However, there was a more important principle at work in that case which makes me accept the majority opinion; the position that no ‘speech delivery system’ should be priveliged above any other. The First Ammendment makes NO distinctions between kinds of speech or press.

    Archbishop Chaput’s arguments about “speech to children” apply to ALL other forms of media. Books are printed by big corporations too and sold on the market. Very young kids can go into bookshops and purchase copies of, say, Clive Barker’s grisly sadomasochistic horror novels. Very young kids can easily stay up late at night and watch television shows or even movies with content most would regard as innapropriate for kids (and these shows and movies are often produced by, surprise!, corporations!).

    Why should video games be singled out by the law for harsher restrictions than movies, books or TV shows? The simple fact is that so far there has been no demonstrated rational basis for such unequal treatment.

    Bringing up the ghosts of Columbine might help the Archbishop enjoy a feeling of self-satisfied “I-told-you-so”-ism, but its clearly an emotional argument.

    Then again, expecting rationality from an Archbishop is to expect too much.

  • This is a debate that drives me crazy. Playing a violent video game is not going to cause you to go out and shoot your school (Columbine). It’s the same debate as the kind of music the kids listened to. They listened to Marilyn Manson, so people said that Marilyn Manson caused them to shoot up the school. He didn’t… I could go on a tangent about this one, but that’s not what this article is about. Violent video games didn’t cause the kids to shoot anyone. What caused them to shoot someone was being picked on day in and day out without anything being done. You can disagree, but I strongly believe this. Think about it, how would it feel to be tormented every day at school?

    • As someone that was tormented at school every day, I agree.

      Bullying was the primary cause of Columbine.

      However, the politicians and “psychologists” behind moral panics can’t squeeze money and/or votes and/or publicity out of “down with bullies.” They can, however, squeeze money out of moral panics about Marilyn Manson, Comic Books, Video Games, Dungeons and Dragons, Metallica, etc etc.

      Just a small correction; Klebold and Harris didn’t like Marilyn Manson in the first place. They were KMFDM fans. But KMFDM isn’t sufficiently notorious in the US so the Moral Panickers couldn’t use them as a scapegoat.

      • Disclaimer: My above post should not be interpreted to imply that Klebold and Harris were innocent.

        They had free will and their retribution was clearly extremely disproportionate. Hell, they didn’t even shoot the bullies. Klebold and Harris are not “just innocent victims” and they clearly were monsters.

        That doesn’t change the fact that bullying was more to blame than Marilyn Manson.

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