Utah governor vetoes video game bill

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Utah Governor Jon Huntsman (R) has vetoed HB353, a bill in Utah that proponents had hoped would impose fines upon retailers who sold children violent video games. Announcing the veto in a letter sent to Utah’s speaker of the House and Senate president, Huntsman said the bill would likely face stiff constitutional opposition, were it passed into law.

The bill has met with controversy since it was first put on the floor of the Utah legislature for consideration, partly for its contents and partly for its pedigree: Jack Thompson purportedly was involved with its creation. He’s an avid proponent of restricting or abolishing the sales of violent video games. A frequent guest on talk shows and news programs focusing on violent video games, Thompson is an attorney in Florida who was disbarred in October, 2008.

Huntsman’s move has surprised many watchers from the sideline, as HB353 passed quickly with the approval of both Utah’s House and Senate; legislators overwhelmingly approved the bill.

In rejecting HB353, Huntsman writes, “While protecting children from inappropriate materials is a laudable goal, the language of this bill is so broad that it likely will be struck down by the courts as an unconstitutional violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause and/or the First Amendment.”

Huntsman’s opinion mirrors that previously made by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a video game industry group which has successfully overturned every other state law that’s been put into effect to regulate the sale of video games.

HB353, which would amend Utah’s “Truth In Advertising Act,” sought to restrict the sale of games rated “M” for “Mature” or “AO” for “Adults Only” by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). Such games are intended specifically for players 17 years old and older. Retailers found violating this would be subject to fines — hence, “truth in advertising.”

The ESRB rating system, much like the motion picture rating system upon which it’s based, is an entirely voluntary program, though it has the backing of major U.S. game publishers and national retailers of video games. And studies, including studies done by the U.S. government, show that the system works, and has been working increasingly in recent years, as the ESA and other groups have put more pressure on retailers to comply.

Critics pointed out a loophole in Utah’s amendments, however — retailers wouldn’t be fined if they didn’t sell products with age-appropriate labeling. It’s this that stuck Huntsman from signing the bill into law.

“Therefore, the unintended consequence of the bill would be that parents and children would have no labels to guide them in determining the age appropriateness of the goods or service, thereby increasing children’s potential exposure to something they or their parents would have otherwise determined was inappropriate under the voluntary labeling system now being recognized and embraced by a significant number of vendors,” Huntsman concluded.

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