JUSTICE ALITO has done considerable independent research to identify, see post, at 14–15, nn. 13–18, video games in which “the violence is astounding,” post, at 14. “Victims are dismembered, decapitated, disemboweled, set on fire, and chopped into little pieces. . . . Blood gushes, splatters, and pools.” Ibid. JUSTICE ALITO recounts all these disgusting video games in order to disgust us—but disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression. And the same is true of JUSTICE ALITO’s description, post, at 14–15, of those video games he has discovered that have a racial or ethnic motive for their violence—“‘ethnic cleansing’ [of] . . . African Americans, Latinos, or Jews.” To what end does he relate this? Does it somehow increase the “aggressiveness” that California wishes to suppress? Who knows? But it does arouse the reader’s ire, and the reader’s desire to put an end to this horrible message. Thus, ironically, JUSTICE ALITO’s argument highlights the precise danger posed by the California Act: that the ideas expressed by speech—whether it be violence, or gore, or racism—and not its objective effects, may be the real reason for governmental proscription.The Court strikes down a California law that prohibits the sale or rental of "violent video games" to minors. The statute defined violent games in a way that "mimics the New York statute regulating obscenity-for-minors that we upheld in Ginsberg v. New York." But sex and violence are different: "obscenity is not protected expression" under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. California was trying "to create a wholly new category of content-based regulation that is permissible only for speech directed at children." "That is unprecedented and mistaken," the Court says today.
California’s argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence, but there is none. Certainly the books we give children to read—or read to them when they are younger—contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers “till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.” The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales 198 (2006 ed.). Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. Id., at 95. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven. Id., at 54.I was reading that out loud here at Meadhouse, and somebody said: "The Supreme Court needs spoiler alerts!"
High-school reading lists are full of similar fare. Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake. The Odyssey of Homer, Book IX, p. 125 (S. Butcher & A. Lang transls. 1909) (“Even so did we seize the fiery-pointed brand and whirled it round in his eye, and the blood flowed about the heated bar. And the breath of the flame singed his eyelids and brows all about, as the ball of the eye burnt away, and the roots thereof crackled in the flame”). In the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface. Canto XXI, pp. 187–189 (A. Mandelbaum transl. Bantam Classic ed. 1982). And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island. W. Golding, Lord of the Flies 208–209 (1997 ed.).That Homer passage still grosses people out. Even after all the horrible movies and video games they've witnessed.
Alito, by the way, does not dissent. (Remember he was the lone dissenter in the Phelps case, showing the most empathy for sensitive people brutalized by ugly expression.) He thinks that "the experience of playing a video game may be quite different from the experience of reading a book, listening to a radio broadcast, or viewing a movie," and he'd prefer to put off the more difficult free speech questions and "hold only that the particular law at issue here fails to provide the clear notice that the Constitution requires." That would leave room for legislatures to craft better laws designed to protect minors.
ADDED: The 2 dissenting opinions come from Justices Thomas and Breyer. Thomas relies on originalism: "the founding generation" didn't think First Amendment free speech included a right "to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors’ parents or guardians." I haven't had the chance to read the entire opinion, but I can see that it contains some detailed discussion about the history of ideas about children. I'll leave that for another post.
Justice Breyer's dissenting opinion reject the facial challenge to the law. He says the "case is ultimately less about censorship than it is about education."
Our Constitution cannot succeed in securing the liberties it seeks to protect unless we can raise future generations committed cooperatively to making our system of government work.... Sometimes, children need to learn by making choices for themselves. Other times, choices are made for children—by their parents, by their teachers, and by the people acting democratically through their governments.