Federal Judge Blocks Michigan Explicit Video Game Law

Matt O'Conner
DETROIT — A U.S. District Court judge has issued a preliminary injunction to prevent enforcement of a state law that would restrict the sale of explicit video games to minors.

Had the law gone into effect on Dec. 1 as planned, retailers would have faced fines of up to $5,000 and up to 93 days in prison for selling sexually explicit or ultra-violent video games to customers under 18.

But trade associations, including the Entertainment Software Association, Video Software Dealers Association and Michigan Retailers Association, presented a united front in challenging the law. In September, they filed a suit charging that the law is unconstitutionally vague and illegally limits First Amendment rights of Michigan residents.

In his decision, Judge George Caram Steeh wrote that the law would “likely have a chilling effect on adult expression” and result in “self-censoring by game creators, distributors and retailers, including ultimately pulling T- and M-rated games off store shelves altogether.” Steeh added that “loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”

The state now must go to federal court to prove the bill’s language is within the confines of the Constitution. The governor’s office said it is prepared for a fight.

“This was not an unexpected development, and it is simply just one step in the process of litigating a very important issue,” said Liz Boyd, a spokesperson for Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. “The governor remains very committed to this issue and protecting Michigan's children.”

In passing the bill, state legislators relied heavily on research that claimed video games contribute to violence, aggression and other behavioral problems among minors. But Judge Steeh said the research was flawed and that it “is unlikely that the state can demonstrate a compelling interest in preventing a perceived harm.”

Michigan was one of three states to pass legislation in 2005 making it illegal to sell explicit games. Illinois passed a similar law earlier this year, and California followed suit after Michigan.

The gaming industry has filed suits to block the laws in both of those states. Federal courts previously have struck down video game restrictions approved by Washington state, Indianapolis and St. Louis County in Missouri, saying they encroached on the First Amendment.