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A video game maker may have hoped to head off litigation when it promised in December to clean up a game that sparked protests in the Haitian-American community because the game featured the phrase “kill the Haitians.” Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. said that future editions of “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” a game that immerses its players in the world of ethnic gang warfare, would no longer contain that phrase. But two weeks after Take-Two made that pledge and issued an apology, five Haitian-American advocacy groups filed suit in Palm Beach County, Fla., seeking a ban or restriction on the sale of the game and damages “in excess of $15,000.” The groups include the Haitian American Coalition of Palm Beach County, three other Florida organizations and the Massachusetts-based Haitian-American Coalition for Civil Rights. It turns out that the groups’ objections go far beyond the anti-Haitian statements. The groups claim that the violence in video games causes psychological harm to children and directly causes some of them to commit violence, including “in rare cases the killing and maiming of others.” The groups name not only Take-Two, but also Target Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Best Buy Co. Inc., as distributors of the game, as well as others. The suit is the latest in a legal tug-of-war pitting video game makers against those objecting to the sale of what they regard as gratuitously violent content. Removed to federal court On Dec. 29, Take-Two removed the case from state court to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, on the ground of diversity. Take-Two is a New York entity and the plaintiffs are not. The case was also removed because damages would likely exceed the $75,000 federal jurisdictional amount if Take-Two were found to have contributed to the commission of violent crimes. Haitian American Coalition of Palm Beach County v. Take-Two Interactive Inc., No. 03-CV-81180. Barry Silver of Boca Raton, Fla.’s Silver & Astor said he is handling the plaintiffs’ case pro bono. During a term in the Florida Legislature, he sponsored legislation that would have restricted children’s access to games at video arcades. His proposal did not become law. Take-Two and its attorney, Howard M. Camerik of the Boca Raton office of Philadelphia-based Blank Rome, declined to comment. Professor Kevin W. Saunders of Michigan State University-DCL College of Law, who has written in favor of the regulation of video games, said that social science research indicates that the games are more damaging than less interactive media, like violent movies. They may also make violent children more efficient killers, by teaching the military-style tactics that were on display in the Columbine High School massacre and other school assaults, he said. Douglas Lowenstein, president of Entertainment Software Association countered, “People who commit crimes and blame video games are simply making excuses to duck responsibility to avoid paying for their illegal acts.” But Saunders said there is a good case to be made that video games are not speech. He said “the images may be a form of expression, but having a child point a gun at a screen is not a form of communication.” Also, he alleged that violent games are obscene speech and thus beyond the protection of the First Amendment. Those arguments have met with some success in state court and federal district court decisions upholding state restrictions on the sale of video games. However, the two highest courts to consider the issue have disagreed. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2001 case, American Amusement Machine Ass’n v. Kendrick, 244 F.3d 572, that video games are a form of speech. The court also ruled that only sexual displays-not violence-can be obscene, and that the evidence of harmful effects is weak. The 8th Circuit agreed last year, in Interactive Digital Software Ass’n v. St. Louis County, 329 F.3d 954. Young’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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