This guest post was provided by Sandy Wallace, an aspiring lawyer and media fanatic. If you’re looking for legal advice related to violence, violent speech, and the protecting your freedom of said speech, Sandy recommends the services of a criminal defense attorney.
The U.S. Navy’s Sea Systems Command located at the Navy Yard complex in Washington, D.C. was the scene of a horrific gun attack on Monday, September 16, 2013. A 34-year-old IT contractor named Aaron Alexis shot and killed 12 co-workers before police shot and killed him. Although reportedly suffering from self-reported mental illness, a causal link to video games has led to speculation about their impact on Alexis’s actions. In Aurora, Colorado, 12 people were shot to death in a movie theater on July 20, 2012, during the premier of the movie The Dark Knight Rises. The shooter, James Holmes, 25, was reported to have talked a lot about superheroes and collected Batman paraphernalia.
These were two of the dozens of cases involving violent acts that have been linked to violent video games and movies. Although pundits are quick to assign blame for such actions to the violent nature of certain media (i.e. video games, movies, and music) how much is actually known about the cause and effect relationship between violence in the media and violent acts committed by those exposed to such violence?
The Case for Banning Media Violence
Beginning in 1984, Tipper Gore, the wife of former Vice President Al Gore, engaged in a campaign to institute a rating system for video games and music. Her group, the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC), argued that young people’s exposure to certain violent themes and content found in these forms of media made them more likely to engage in those acts. Tipper’s war began with indecent lyrics and artists like Prince, Motley Crue, and Cyndi Lauper and expanded to violent content in videos. This led to the creation of a voluntary media ratings system.
In 1992 the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Violence in Media found that children exposed to violence were more desensitized to its impact on others. The study was a follow up to a Surgeon General’s report from 1982 that found that children exposed to violence on TV were less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, were more fearful, and more likely to engage in aggressive behavior.
The Case against Banning Media Violence
Setting aside constitutionally guaranteed first amendment rights regarding freedom of speech and expression for a moment, a case can be made for not banning violent content in media. The absence of any definitive proof that such exposure promotes an individual to engage in a violent act makes it difficult to link the two.
Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia introduced legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in December 2012, while Iowa Senator Charles Grassley put forth similar legislation. The Centers for Disease Control was asked through an executive order from President Obama to research the relationship between violence in media and gun violence. These approaches have been welcomed by the entertainment community, with the Entertainment Software Association remarking that, “…tragic levels of gun violence remain unique to our country…Entertainment does not cause violent behavior in the real world.”
Until more is known and understood about what causes violent acts, it would be irresponsible to base any legal action on a causal relationship between media violence and societal violence. The Supreme Court supported this notion when in September 2012 it struck down a California ban on the sale of violent video games to children. In a 7-2 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that the U.S. has no tradition of restricting children’s access to violent material, offering, “Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed.”