WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will decide whether free speech rights are more important than helping parents keep violent material away from children.

The justices agreed Monday to consider reinstating California’s ban on the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, a law the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco threw out last year on grounds that it violated minors’ constitutional rights.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed the law in 2005, said he was pleased the high court would review the appeals court decision. He said, “We have a responsibility to our kids and our communities to protect against the effects of games that depict ultra-violent actions.”

However, the judge who wrote the decision overturning the law said at the time there was no research showing a connection between violent games and psychological harm.

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case comes only a week after the high court voted overwhelmingly to strike down a federal law banning videos showing animal cruelty. The California case poses similar free speech concerns, although the state law is aimed at protecting children, raising an additional issue.

California’s law would have prohibited the sale or rental of violent games — those that include “killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being” — to anyone under 18. It also would have created strict labeling requirements for video game makers. Retailers who violated the act could have been fined up to $1,000 per violation.

Lawyer Stephen S. Smith, who has represented video game companies in court, said the Supreme Court may use this case to explain how far lawmakers can go when trying to regulate depictions of violence.

“There is a fair amount of First Amendment law in the area of sexual explicitness and obscenity,” he said. “But there is not nearly as much law on the issue of violence and what may be restricted or not under the First Amendment in that arena.”

Opponents of the law note that video games already are labeled with a rating system that lets parents decide what their children can purchase and play.

But supporters of the law note that the Supreme Court has upheld laws keeping minors from buying or having access to pornography, alcohol and tobacco.

Leland Yee, the California state senator who wrote the video game ban, said the Supreme Court obviously doesn’t think the animal cruelty video ban and the violent video game ban are comparable.

“Clearly, the justices want to look specifically at our narrowly tailored law that simply limits sales of ultra-violent games to kids without prohibiting speech,” said Yee, a San Francisco Democrat.

The court will hear arguments in this case in the fall.