Denver Archbishop Chaput: In video game ruling, court ignored lesson of Columbine

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has weighed in on the recent Supreme Court decision (pdf) that struck down a law banning the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. His arguments in favor of restricting the availability of video games echo his views on gay marriage and civil unions. Government should step in, he says, and bar gay marriage and restrict violent video game availability based on the “common sense” threats they pose. In opening an essay on the topic, Chaput references the 1999 Columbine school shootings.

“I spent the day after the massacre… trying to make sense of the violence to the wider community…. Common sense tells us that the violence of our music, our video games, our films, and our television has to go somewhere, and it goes straight into the hearts of our children to bear fruit in ways we can’t imagine— until something like [Columbine] happens.”

Chaput, who often raises alarm bells about the negative influence of the media, advances concerns that video games don’t just “simulate” violence but “stimulate” violence as well.

Scientific research is far from clear on that point, however, with the strongest studies suggesting that depression, alienation and the influence of friends are much stronger predictors of violent behavior.

That debate will go on as more research results come in but until then, as most constitutional attorneys might add, “common sense” is no sufficient support for a court ruling limiting speech.

Chaput surely knows that but he likes the “common sense” argument. It’s the same rough argument he advanced against a Colorado same-sex civil unions bill last spring.

“The nature of marriage is a matter of common sense and long tradition… it is not simply a ‘religious’ issue.  Marriage has long been recognized as a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman that exists for the benefit of children and the protection of women.”

At the time, supporters of the civil union bill argued that Chaput’s common sense was not everyone’s common sense and was no valid legal justification, in any case, for the state to deny equal individual rights.

Church-state watchers will note that, in his discussion of the video game ruling and the civil unions bill, Chaput, who is often talked about as a candidate for higher church office and who has long encouraged Catholics to involve themselves in civic life as an obligation of the faith, has highlighted his basic position on the role of government.

When it comes to gay marriage, he wants the state to act to guard his version of Christian traditional marriage. In considering the video game violence, Chaput wishes the government would act to help parents guard their children against video game violence he considers dangerous.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a Catholic Archbishop would view government and invest in it as a hierarchical source of authority from which protection and morality might flow.

“All law serves—or should serve—the dual purpose of protecting the dignity of the human person and advancing the common good. A law which respects mothers and fathers trying to make good choices for their family does just that,” he writes.

Americans, however, disagree almost as much on what constitutes the common good as they do on what role government should play in the lives of the people.

Legal writer Emily Bazelon posted a constitutional view of the video game case as it approached the court last year. Bazelon is no “First Amendment absolutist,” as she put it, but she’s not sure the government would be properly fulfilling its role in U.S. life by helping parents choose what games are appropriate for their children to play.

To justify a limit on speech…. courts have to find that the state has a compelling interest and has used the least restrictive means to achieve it. Let’s stipulate for a second that the research on the link between playing games and acting more aggressive is good enough, despite the reasons for skepticism. What about the least restrictive means part? Does it really make sense to bar older teenagers from buying violent games? By 15 or 16, do they really need the state acting as their protector?

In this context, the answer is probably no. The idea that a 17-year-old can go to an R-rated movie alone and then be turned away at the video store seems kind of silly. Which means California’s ban is broader than it should be. And if the state lowered the age, say to 14, how many kids would it really affect? Isn’t the problem, if there is one, that parents are buying these games for their younger kids, rather than that kids are showing up at the store with $60 and toting the games home themselves? Video games are already labeled to alert parents to the violence inside the box…. some consoles come with controls so parents can block games they don’t want their kids to play. Banning the sale of these games to teenagers is an ineffectual gesture that mostly misses the point. It’s not up to the government to get kids to stop playing these games, whether they’re harmful or immoral or just a waste of time. It’s up to us.

If the readers who chose to comment at First Things, the religious website where Chaput published his essay, are any measure, the Christian flock might be as apt to accept Bazelon’s “common sense” as they are to accept Chaput’s “common sense” on the topic.

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