Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has joined his colleagues in nine other states, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a California law aimed at restricting the sale of violent video games to children.
The decision came after weeks of pressure from advocacy groups, legislators and even Gov. Gary Herbert, all urging him not to sign onto the friend-of-the-court brief, and counter-pressure from the video game industry.
"I'm convinced it's a First Amendment right," Shurtleff said Friday. "The only reason I wouldn't sign on was because of political pressure and I just didn't feel like that was the right reason."
But Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a California-based nonprofit that supports the state law, blasted Shurtleff for refusing to meet with the group, disregarding the social science on the topic and caving to the video game industry.
"It's an unfortunate but predictable decision. Our concern all along was that Attorney General Shurtleff could be bought and sold by the video game industry via campaign contributions," said Steyer, who teaches courses at Stanford law school. "This seems to run against everything he has claimed to stand for in his press clippings and statements on his Web site."
The Entertainment Software Association, the trade organization that represents the video game industry, gave Shurtleff's campaign $3,000 in 2008.
The California law, which passed in 2005, would prohibit the sale of violent video games to those under age 18. Retailers who broke the law could be fined up to $1,000.
But a federal appeals court blocked implementation of the law, ruling that the ban infringed on free speech and California couldn't prove video game violence was harmful to minors.
The state appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case in its coming term, which begins next month.
In July, the attorneys general in 11 states, led by Louisiana, filed a brief supporting the California law.
Shurtleff said that he is of the opinion that the only legal way that government could prohibit the sale would be to show that the violence children see in video games leads directly to violent acts.
"All the evidence I researched and I really looked into this is that there is no causal connection between violent video games and violent [acts]. … So I don't know why the government would step in in place of parents," Shurtleff said.
Shurtleff said that if the court ruled that violent video games could lead to violent acts, it could be used as a defense or mitigating factor in criminal cases. Steyer called that claim "laughable at best."
"It's ironic that someone who touts himself as such a staunch defender of children and families would side with industry profits related to ultra-violent and sexually violent video games over the established interests of the children and families of Utahns," Steyer said.
Shurtleff said he still supports rating and labeling of video games and parents deciding what is appropriate for their children.
"I'm going to have some convincing to do to people that I'm not putting kids at risk by taking this position," Shurtleff said. "If I really felt there was strong enough evidence for a causal connection, then I'd think maybe government can step into this arena, but it's just not there."
In 2009, Shurtleff opposed a bill sponsored by Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, that would have allowed civil penalties of up to $2,000 for retailers who promised not to sell violent games to minors, but did anyway.
Then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. vetoed the bill, saying he believed it was unconstitutional and could deter retailers from voluntarily labeling video game boxes.