It's 1954 all over again

Earlier this week, around the time I finished reading David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague, the U.S. Supreme Court, it seems, was re-enacting it. Well, at least a couple of scenes.

The Ten-Cent Plague tells the story of not one but several campaigns against comics on the grounds that they were violent and bad influences on children. And, to be fair, the crime and horror comics of the time were pretty damn gruesome, repulsive enough that a lot of folks were willing to set aside the First Amendment on the grounds that the Founding Fathers couldn't possibly have envisioned the Crypt-Keeper, and they certainly wouldn't want to defend that. Hajdu documents a flurry of legislation banning all sorts of comic books throughout the country, mostly promoted by people who genuinely cared about children (but who also seem to have forgotten that children have brains of their own).

A similar impulse led California legislators to pass a law in 2005 banning the sale of violent video games to anyone under 18, but the law was struck down by a lower court, because apparently you can only protect youngsters from sex, not violence. This led Justice Antonin Scalia to become the unlikely hero of video gamers everywhere, as he argued on Tuesday that while the First Amendment definitely wasn't designed to protect obscenity, it should apply to everything else, even violence.

Justice Alito countered, noting 21st-century videogames "cannot possibly have been envisioned at the time when the First Amendment was ratified," so it would be "entirely artificial" to assume games had the same constitutional protection as books.

Deja vu all over again! The article makes for pretty entertaining reading, with a video game attorney making an explicit reference to comic book suppression, justices and lawyers arguing about how much violence is traditional in children's media, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor wondering if Bugs Bunny is next. Let's give Justice Elena Kagan, the youngest member of the court, the last word:

At one point, Mr. Morazzini mentioned that the game "Mortal Kombat," whose first edition appeared in the early 1990s, might be a candidate for restriction under the law.

"Mortal Kombat," Justice Kagan responded, "is an iconic game which I am sure half of the clerks who work for us spent considerable amounts of time in their adolescence playing."

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