Video game bill derails so sponsor reroutes efforts

Published February 21, 2007 12:00 am
Worries that HB50 is unconstitutional cause lawmakers to come up with a compromise
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For a second year in a row, legislators' constitutional concerns have derailed a bill cracking down on violent video games, which was promoted by national conservative activist Jack Thompson.

HB50, which would have made it a felony to sell or rent to minors games depicting state-defined "inappropriate violence," was returned to the House rules committee on Tuesday.

Instead, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Scott Wyatt, R-Logan, joined with Rep. Kay Mciff, R-Richfield, to sponsor a compromise resolution urging Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to file "friend of the court" briefs on behalf of other states' embattled video gaming laws. HJR15 was passed out of committee on its way to the full House.

"I'm OK with this," said Wyatt, who confessed to having doubts about HB50's constitutionality from the time former Rep. David Hogue, R-Riverton, asked him to carry it to the 2007 Legislature. Hogue, who ran for the state Senate and lost, had unsuccessfully sponsored nearly identical legislation in 2006.

That, too, was drafted with input from Thompson, the Miami lawyer who previously has taken on rap music, radio shock jock Howard Stern and gay and lesbian rights organizations.

Wyatt said Thompson had met with both him and ultra-conservative advocacy group the Utah Eagle Forum earlier this year to promote the bill. Thompson could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

"Once I took the bill, a variety of people came to me suggesting it was unconstitutional," Wyatt said. "When I presented it to the [House] judiciary committee last summer, I made a commitment I would not take it to the floor until I could fully address the issues raised."

As he heard testimony in hearings last month, Wyatt said his worries about whether the bill could pass constitutional muster only grew. Chief among them were fears the restrictions would impinge on free speech guarantees. And there were the worries about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend a long shot from inevitable court challenges.

"I learned [state] courts had reviewed similar bills in nine other states and found them all unconstitutional," he said. "HJR15 is a fair compromise. . . . There just weren't the votes in committee. I don't even know if I would have voted for it, though I do support the concept."

Wyatt said the resolution would give Utah "a dog in the fight" to protect children from harmful games and "hopefully influence the courts and make the legal climate palatable" to place limits on the access minors have to video games.

Maryann Christensen, who lobbied hard for HB50 on behalf of the Utah Eagle Forum, was not satisfied - and she predicted lawmakers will see the measure again in 2008.

"If this is the best we can get, it's the best we can get," she said. "But we would have liked the state to have its own law rather than just supporting other states."

The Utah Eagle Forum has cited several video games it considers overly violent, but is particularly targeting the Grand Theft Auto series. One scenario, Christensen says, includes a mall shooting.

Although Christensen allowed that there is no evidence that Trolley Square shooter Sulejman Talovic played violent video games at any time prior to slaying five people a week ago, she says the massacre played out similarly to the Grand Theft Auto mall segment.

"We think it would be a law worth defending," she said. "But instead, we're saying, 'Let's just put our children in danger because we'd rather not spend the money.' That's a weak argument to me."

HB50 foe Scott Sabey, an attorney representing the Entertainment Software Association, also was not overjoyed with the compromise.

"But we won't oppose it," he added, noting that Utah will save litigation time and expense by tagging on to existing efforts by other states.

Sabey argues that video game ratings and vigilant parents should be enough to safeguard children from violent content.

"People are emotionally charged about this subject, but they also are misguided. There just isn't clear evidence that there is a correlation between video games and violence."



* Tribune reporter DUSTIN GARDINER contributed to this story.

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