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Usiel’s Speech About Free Speech & Youth Suffrage in Front of the Supreme Court

Written by Alex Koroknay-Palicz Nov 02, 2010

NYRA Board Member, Usiel Phoenix, spoke today in front of the US Supreme Court during oral argument in the Schwarzenegger v. EMA case. Text of the speech is below:

Today, the Supreme Court will decide whether states have the right to prevent the sale of video games to minors. Now, I’ll be honest. I’m not a gamer. My reflexes are terrible and I’m far too jumpy to make it through any but the easiest levels without assistance. I’ve never bought a video game for myself and I’m unlikely to do so at any point before I turn 18. I am here today not because I have a personal interest in defending video games, but because there are larger issues at stake than some coverage of this case would have you believe.

Board member Usiel Phoenix speaking about free speech, video games and democracy in front of the US Supreme Court during oral argument for the Schwarzenegger v. EMA case.

We have a long history, in this country, of demonizing the new methods of entertainment adopted by each generation. Take, for example, the case of pinball. The game as we know it today was popularized in the mid-40s and was almost immediately seized upon by those in power as evidence of cultural degeneracy. We view it as quaint now, but during this time it was banned in many large cities on the grounds that its elements of chance constituted gambling and were offensive to the tastes of society. Many of the cities that did not institute a full ban instead set an age limit to restrict who could play the game; some even went as far as to delimit the minimum number of feet that anyone under the age of 18 must keep between themselves and a pinball machine. These restrictions were not widely removed until the 70s. In the 30 years of its prohibition, pinball came to be viewed as the hallmark of rebellious youth, who managed to find ways to play the game even as traditional society decried the terrible damage it must be wreaking upon their psyches. This, of course, is the generation that bred the men and women who now make up our Supreme Court. One might ask the Justices if any one of them has ever played a pinball game.

And what of this claim that exposure to video game violence causes people to become hostile and aggressive? I have personally examined the briefs submitted in support of Schwarzenegger’s ban, and I have found that not one has cited a study that implies anything more than a simple correlation between violent tendencies and video game use. Far from being damning evidence, this correlation is to be expected. It is natural for people with violent tendencies to seek safe outlets for their aggression. The violence present in many video games can fulfill this need, just as can the brutality present in the All-American sport of football.

Now, some say that these negative effects of video games can only be observed in young people specifically. Look at the Columbine shooting, they say; the perpetrators of that crime were driven to their actions by the video game Doom. It’s true that one of the shooters wrote that his crime would resemble Doom. He also wrote, in the same sentence, that it would resemble the atrocities of the Vietnam War. The tragedy of Columbine was not caused by the exposure of teenagers to video games. It was caused by the exposure of two mentally unstable individuals to a society they hated. Taking their actions as representative of teenagers as a whole is no more justified than taking the actions of the 9/11 hijackers as representative of all Muslims. Both spring from fallacious lines of thought and both, if not cut off at their roots, have the power to destroy our democratic society and leave in its place one of fear and discrimination.

It’s important to note that this case isn’t a matter of protecting small children. No toddler is going to accidentally make his way to a video game store with $50 in his pocket and ask to purchase the latest Halo. This law affects only those minors with the maturity and financial independence necessary to transport themselves to a store and pay for the game of their choice. The underlying theory here is that there is some trait inherent to those independent, mature people who are under the age of 18 that causes them to sustain severe psychological damage from the playing of a video game. This is an assertion that science simply does not support. It is telling that many of the briefs submitted in favor of the California law devote more space to arguing that they are not legally required to prove the harm caused to minors by video games than to presenting evidence in support of this theory.

Closest to my heart is the matter of how this case is being decided. Supreme Court justices are appointed through Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. Most Americans are represented in this process by virtue of having voted in the Presidential and Senate elections. Today is Election Day. As I speak, millions of American citizens are exercising their right to defend their political interests through the casting of a ballot. Not one of these people will be under the age of 18. Not one of these ballots will clearly reflect the interests of youth. On this day, 75 million American students, workers, and taxpayers, should they think of raising their voice to speak, will find that their tongues have been cut out and held in trust. If I could vote, I would vote against those who would betray the founding ideals of this country so deeply as to engage in needless censorship. I would vote against those who would abandon reasoned action to chase fleeting moral panics. I would vote against those who lack the vision to see that this California law is an attack on youth, and with it one more arbitrary wall is built between people, and with that so much human energy will be wasted on the fruitless efforts of control and resentment. But I cannot vote. And so I am here today to speak in the manner with which I am permitted and to beg you, you who can vote, to remember when you leave that free speech is a right, a human right, and that human rights can have no age limits.

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