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Appeals Court Strikes Down St. Louis Video Games Law

On June 3, 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit struck down a St. Louis County ordinance that barred minors from access to video games containing "graphic violence." The decision in Interactive Digital Software Ass'n v. St. Louis County reversed a lower court ruling that upheld the ordinance based in part on the assumption that media violence causes aggressive behavior.

The Free Expression Policy Project, on behalf of 33 media scholars, historians, psychologists, and games researchers, had filed a friend-of-the-court brief explaining that most laboratory experiments and other efforts to prove adverse effects from media violence have in fact yielded null results, and that the actual effects of media exposure are much more complex and varying than politicians and members of the public sometimes assume.

The court of appeals' unanimous decision first rejected the lower court's ruling that video games are not protected by the First Amendment. Noting the narrative and visual-art components of many games, the judges said they "are as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best of literature." The ordinance was therefore subject to "strict scrutiny," with the county required to demonstrate real, not merely conjectural, harms from violent video games.

However, said the judges (agreeing with the scholars' brief):

The County's conclusion that there is a strong likelihood that minors who play violent video games will suffer a deleterious effect on their psychological health is simply unsupported in the record. It is true that a psychologist appearing on behalf of the County stated that a recent study that he conducted indicates that playing violent video games "does in fact lead to aggressive behavior in the immediate situation ... that more aggressive thoughts are reported and there is frequently more aggressive behavior." But this vague generality falls far short of a showing that video games are psychologically deleterious. The County's remaining evidence included the conclusory comments of county council members; a small number of ambiguous, inconclusive, or irrelevant ... studies; and the testimony of a high school principal who admittedly had no information regarding any link between violent video games and psychological harm.1

Although not as thoughtful or penetrating in analyzing the role of violent themes in literature as an earlier Seventh Circuit decision on the same subject (see FEPP's description of the 2002 Kendrick case), the ruling in Interactive Digital Software Ass'n is an important contribution to the legal literature rejecting simplistic assumptions (or claims of proof) about media effects, and recognizing that minors too have free-expression rights.


1. Interactive Digital Software Ass'n v. St. Louis County, No. 02-3010 (June 3, 2003), slip opinion at 6-7.

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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