What Does the First Amendment Protect?
In the two First Amendment cases handed down last week — one about limiting sales of violent video games to children, the other about Arizona’s attempt to make public financing more attractive to candidates — the dissenting justices contend that the protection of speech is not really the issue at all.
Breyer replies that the video games in question are in fact acts, although they are, he acknowledges, acts “containing an expressive component.” That component, he argues, does not outweigh or render irrelevant the “significant amount of physical activity” involved in playing these games, activity in the course of which players do not merely see violent things but do violent things.
The danger Breyer wants to protect children from is not the danger of being exposed to violence, but the danger of being initiated into violence. This happens (or can happen) when game-players are required not merely to view violent acts passively, but to perform them by making a succession of choices (with a button or joystick) that decide the fate of the characters they have created.
Justice Samuel Alito, who concurs in the result because he believes the law to have been poorly drafted but disagrees with the majority’s reasoning, provides an example. Compare, he says, the reader of a novel depicting violence with a video-game player “who creates an avatar that bears his own image; who sees a realistic image of the victim … in three dimensions; who is forced to decide whether or not to kill the victim and decides to do so; who then pretends to grasp an axe, to raise it above the head of the victim; who hears the thud of the axe hitting her head and her cry of pain; who sees her split skull and feels the sensation of blood on his face and hands.”
Are these experiences the same?, Alito asks, and answers no.
The difference, which Scalia labors to deny (“Certainly the books we give to children … contain no shortage of gore”), is sufficient, Alito thinks, to justify the state’s interest in regulation, even though he finds the present attempt at regulation flawed.
Breyer frames the issue precisely when he declares, “This case is ultimately less about censorship than it is about education.” Education is important in a democracy, he explains, because it gives us a means of raising “future generations committed cooperatively to making our system of government work.”
The implication is that a generation immersed in violent video-games will be committed not to cooperation but to actions less helpful to the flourishing of the country.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing another dissent disguised as a concurrence, shares Breyer’s concern that children be protected from influences that might turn them into damaged citizens. He reminds us of Noah Webster’s admonition that children’s minds be “untainted till their reasoning faculties have acquired strength and the good principles which may be planted … have taken deep root”; and he cites a 1979 opinion in which Justice Lewis F. Powell declares that “the State is entitled to adjust its legal system to account for children’s vulnerability.”
Children are vulnerable, according to this theory, because they have not yet developed the ability to distance themselves from what is put before them. Interactive video games increase this vulnerability and lead not merely to the consuming of bad images, but to the possibility of becoming a bad person. This is the corruption that will follow, Alito fears, from allowing “troubled teens to experience in an extraordinarily personal and vivid way what it would be like to carry out unspeakable acts of violence.”
Breyer drives the point home: “…extremely violent games can harm children by rewarding them for being violently aggressive in play, and thereby often teaching them to be violently aggressive in life.” Violent video games, in short, are not representations that deserve First Amendment protection; they are acts with harmful consequences and children deserve to be protected from them.
Although its subject matter could not be more different, Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett, displays the same opposition between a libertarian concern for freedom and a consequentialist concern for the corruption that attends unregulated activity. In this case it is not a child but the political system that is in danger of corruption, and the source of corruption is not a violent game but the desire of private individuals to purchase the votes of office-holders.
That at least is the view of Justice Elena Kagan, writing in dissent: “Campaign finance reform over the last century has focused on one key question: how to prevent massive pools of private money from corrupting our political system.” In Kagan’s formulation, “private money” equals “special interests,” whereas those who “rely on public, rather than private moneys, are ‘beholden [to] no person.’” Therefore by “supplanting private cash, public financing eliminates the source of political corruption.”
No says Chief Justice John G. Roberts, writing for the majority. Arizona’s public financing scheme, he contends, is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech because it penalizes privately financed candidates for being successful. Expenditures by privately financed candidates and the groups supporting them trigger the awarding of matching funds to candidates who have accepted the limits that come along with public funding.
Roberts concludes that “any increase in speech is of one kind … that of publicly financed candidates.” So even if “the matching funds provision did result in more speech … in general, it would do so at the expense of impermissibly burdening (and thus reducing) the speech of privately financed candidates.”
But that parentheses — “and thus reducing” — is a little too fast. How exactly does the fact that in response to your expenditures an opponent with fewer resources will be given additional funds reduce your speech?
You can still get to spend as much as you want and to say as much as you want. What you don’t get to do is overwhelm the voices of less affluent candidates and their supporters. As Kagan points out, “what petitioners demand is essentially a right to quash others’ speech … they would prefer the field to themselves, so that they can speak free from response.” The Arizona law, she adds, can hardly be characterized as a restriction on speech..
It follows, Kagan asserts, that “public financing furthers a compelling interest” — the prevention of corruption — and does so without diminishing anyone’s speech rights. The conclusion, she believes, is inescapable “[e]xcept in this Court,” where the majority declares that the state interest in leveling the playing field “cannot justify undue burdens on political speech.”
But, to make the point again, there is no burden unless being prevented from being the only speaker with a megaphone is a burden, and it is not. In the majority decision, a compelling state interest is set aside because of a restriction on speech that has not occurred.
In some exasperation, Kagan remarks, “Only one thing is missing from the Court’s response: any reasoning to support [its] conclusion.” That’s not quite right. The reasoning is contained in an assumption that is the reverse of Kagan’s: private money, rather than being the vehicle of corruption, is the vehicle of speech, and therefore you can’t have too much of it, no matter what its effects.
The First Amendment, says Roberts, “embodies our choice as a Nation that, when it comes to … speech, the guiding principle is freedom—the ‘unfettered interchange of ideas’ — not whatever the State may view as fair.”
Roberts does not have to reply to Kagan’s points — he can even concede them — because in his view they are irrelevant. “When it comes to protected speech, the speaker is sovereign.” Other considerations (like corruption and fairness) may be in play, but the rights of the speaker — in this case the rights of the spender — are paramount.
They are what the First Amendment protects. Kagan disagrees: “The First Amendment’s core purpose is to foster a healthy vibrant political system full of robust discussion and debate,” and the Arizona law, with its mechanism for increasing participation is, she maintains, true to that purpose.
And there you have it: a clash between the worship of freedom of speech and a concern for the quality of public life in relation to which free speech may sometimes be asked to take a back seat. It is the same clash that pits the freedom to play video games against society’s interest in fostering a generation of young adults responsive to its ideals and aspirations.
We have seen this before — in the pornography cases, in the crush-video case, in the case upholding the right of an anti-gay ministry to picket the funerals of soldiers — and we shall certainly see it again.