Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
In a rather stunning move, yesterday the news broke that controversial Florida-based lawyer, self-proclaimed Christian conservative, and anti-video-game activist Jack Thompson will be disbarred from practicing law for the rest of his life, effective October 25th, 2008, and fined $43,675.
In handing down its decision, the Florida Supreme Court cited Thompson's extensive history of public misconduct, as well as the recommendation of Judge Dava Tunis, who oversaw a disciplinary hearing regarding charges of professional misconduct. 31 separate charges were filed against Thompson, and in 27 of them Judge Tunis recommended a finding of "guilty" to the Florida State Supreme Court, and of those, 21 were from a suit related to Grand Theft Auto and four were from an attempt by Thompson to have Rockstar's Bully declared a public nuisance. Though Thompson immediately filed an appeal, it seems this may not help his case as the ruling states that only another attorney in good standing with the Florida Bar could file a motion for a rehearing on Thompson's behalf. You'd think as a lawyer he'd know that. This is a victory for proponents of First Amendment rights, as well as any and all gamers.
Early in his activism career Thompson fought against perceived obscenity in rap music and in particular in broadcasts of Howard Stern's radio show. Beginning in the late nineties Thompson's focus shifted to stylized violence present in video games, with Thompson filiing lawsuits against producers of violent video games found in the home of 14-year-old Michael Carneal, the perpetrator of the Heath High School shooting of 1997. Thompson's claim was that the game producers were liable for damages for "distributing material (video games) to a minor because it would desensitize him and make him more prone to violence." The suit was dismissed by a federal district court for failing to present a legally recognizable claim. The court concluded that Carneal's actions were not reasonably foreseeable by the defendants and that in any case, his actions superseded those of the defendants. The ruling was upheld on appeal.
Later Thompson injected himself into legal proceedings of various cases that involved, or even hinted at the influence of violent video games, particularly those of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. These would involve an aggravated murder in Ohio in 2003, a homicide, endangerment, and assault case in Tennessee in 2003, a double homicide of two police officers in Alabama in 2005, among others. In some of these cases the defendants cited the influence of playing a GTA video game as inspiration for their actions. In other cases such as that of Jacob D. Robida, an 18-year-old fugitive who gunned down a police officer in Arkansas, Thompson alleged a connection to Grand Theft Auto, yet investigators found no evidence whatsoever that video games of any kind were involved. Indeed, it appears that Thompson's crusade against "violent" video games is so fervent that there is little he will not do to accomplish it. No link is too tenuous (or even non-existent) for him too suggest that real-world violence is at least in part caused by violence in video games. During the days the D.C. Sniper was terrorizing the nation's capitol he speculated the shooter could be a gamer, based solely on the "I am God" messages that were left for police.
Thompson has gained notoriety not only for his actions, but for his words. He has talked about praying for the "destruction" of developers of violent video games. He has compared the chairman of one developer, Take-Two, as a "Hitler Youth". In his campaign against Rockstar Games' Bully, Thompson basically intimated that by playing it one would follow in the footsteps of the Columbine shooters. After filing a public nuisance complaint and demanding that he be allowed to preview the game before its release, he and the judge ruling on the complaint were allowed that very thing. The judge saw no reason to prevent its release and dismissed the complaint. Thompson's reaction was such that the judge filed a complaint with the Florida State Bar calling Thompson's behavior "inappropriate by a member of the bar, unprofessional and contemptible". Even Thompson's allies have distanced themselves from the bombastic attorney. National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) president David Walsh felt Thompson cast the organization in a bad light whenever he brought up their name, and in an open letter to Thompson Walsh said, "Your commentary has included extreme hyperbole and your tactics have included personally attacking individuals for whom I have a great deal of respect."
On a personal note, I have nothing against the ESRB. They are performing a public service by rating video games. Their rating system may not be perfect, but then nothing is. Equally so, I have nothing personal against Jack Thompson. He identified what he believed to be a danger to children and devoted his life to fighting it. In a weird way there is something to admire in that. Yet I do not condone many of the actions and methods undertaken by Thompson to fight his crusade, some of which I outlined above and many more of which you can read elsewhere online. Ultimately, I feel Thompson has been misguided in his efforts. He has vilified and demonized developers of "violent" video games, devoting himself to "destroying" them. Yet if his goal is really to prevent violence by young people, I do not believe the answer is attacking video game publishers. We (humans) have been visiting violence on each other long before video games, movies, rap music and the like. Take it all away and there would still be reports of random homicides on the nightly news.
I would suggest that the problem lies elsewhere, but what is important here, I feel, as in many other issues is that every individual should have the right to make a personal choice of conduct, and should do so responsibly. As an adult, if I want to play a "M" rated game featuring graphic violence or an "AO" rated game featuring nudity and sexual situations, that is my right and my choice. Obivously I may not make that same decision if the individual playing the game is my child, but again, it is my choice and my judgment. If I look at Halo and judge that my kid isn't going to be adversely affected by killing a bunch of aliens, then I may buy that game. If I look at Grand Theft Auto IV and think that the violence in that game is too much for my kid, than I wouldn't allow my kid to play it. It's that simple. But again, it requires a level of responsibility on the part of parents. Parents actually need to parent their children. I do not believe that playing violent video games in and of itself turns "normal" kids into killers. In cases of homicides involving young people in which their actions are blamed on violent video games, I have to ask: where were the parents? Why weren't the parents involved in their child's life? Why didn't they make it a point to know their child's behavior, identify behavior they deemed dangerous or inappropriate, and then act to correct it? Parents cannot sit on their hands, and then years later throw their hands up in exasperation asking "what could I have done?" In the end had Thompson and his like-minded contemporaries focused their attention on a perhaps more serious problem in the American Family, he might not be staring down disbarment, and might actually have done some good along the way.