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Anti-censorship group blasts removal of games from Massachusetts rest stops

Saying there is no legitimate state interest that justifies the removal of arcade games from rest stops, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship this week wrote the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to voice her concern with its "constitutionally problematic" decision.

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation pulled nine games which it deemed violent out of rest stops in four cities along the Massachusetts Turnpike. The move was prompted by complaints from a family who viewed the games, which included plastic guns as controllers, as inappropriate.

In her letter to MDOT's secretary and chief executive officer, NCAC director Joan E. Bertin reminds that video games are protected speech under the First Amendment and, as such "cannot be regulated or restricted by state officials in response to concerns about their message or content."

"There is no legitimate state interest that could be asserted to justify removing specific games to appease the sensibilities of certain motorists," she wrote in the letter provided to Polygon. "Moreover, by caving to the demands of one passer-by, the Department will inevitably invite others to register complaints about material they deem inappropriate. It is not a stretch to imagine someone demanding a ban on certain DVDs, magazines, or books. Perhaps other travelers will think it is inappropriate to broadcast news about war or crime, or other televised content. It is no more acceptable for the Department to remove certain kinds of video games than it would be to selectively remove other materials in rest stops and concessions because some motorists find something in them objectionable."

Bertin went on to say that video games may not be for everyone, but that they have a right to be there.

Coalition spokesman Michael O'Neil tells Polygon that the group has had some success in the past with getting government organizations to reconsider decisions like this. In the past, he said, the group has dealt with books being pulled from school libraries and art from public locations.

"Our hopes are that they will reconsider their position," he said. 'With the support of the video game community, with people who support First Amendment rights reaching out to MDOT, I think we have reason to think we could get a reversal."

O'Neil dismissed the notion that the arcade games, which are revenue generating machines, should be treated any differently than any other First Amendment-protected work.

"I don't see how that would have an impact," he said. "It's pretty likely they have convenience stores too. Are they going to pull DVDs because someone complaints that they are violent? They're setting themselves up for a lot of headache."

Ultimately, O'Neil said, the state's decision isn't in their best interest.

"It's not in the interest of the rest stop patrons, it's not in the interest of the First Amendment or the Massachusetts Department of Transportation," he said. "Their job is not to be the moral arbiter of casual entertainment."

The coalition has not yet heard back from the department about the letter, which was delivered this morning to Davey, O'Neil said.

The group is also looking into a similar decision by the National Amusements movie theater chain.

Founded in 1975, the coalition represents 50 not-for-profit organizations representing artists, educators, religion and labor communities.

We've reached out to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation for comment and will update when it responds.

You can read Bertin's full letter below.

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