Books and movies as natural-born killers

Monday, October 26, 1998

When a lawsuit was filed two years ago against the publisher of a
so-called “hit man manual,” First Amendment advocates said that an adverse
ruling in the case could have untold impact on books, movies, music and
television shows.

Such concerns were dismissed as unfounded by the plaintiffs' lawyers.

They insisted that the suit against Paladin Press by the family of the
victims of a contract killer was narrowly tailored and that going after this particular piece of
trash — Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors — would in
no way impose on First Amendment-protected speech.

“We are absolutely not here to ban books,” said attorney Howard Siegel.

“There's a world of difference between a murder training manual and every
other genre of speech,” said attorney Rodney Smolla.

Unpersuaded, the First Amendment advocates were nonetheless comforted when
Federal Judge Alexander Williams agreed with their concerns and granted a
summary judgment to dismiss the suit in Rice v. Paladin.

But then in June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th District reversed
Judge Williams and handed down a ruling that read more like a rant, saying
in no uncertain terms that the case should go to trial because there simply
was no good reason to protect this kind of speech.

Then the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of that ruling,
sending the case back for trial. The discovery process is just about complete
and another motion for summary judgment is scheduled for Nov. 20 in the
Maryland court of Judge Williams. If this motion is not granted, trial date
is set for May 25.

In the 4th Circuit decision, Judge Michael Luttig dismissed claims that if
the courts failed to protect the Paladin book, the work of publishers,
broadcasters and moviemakers would be made vulnerable.
“This is simply not true,” Judge Luttig wrote. “There will almost never be evidence proffered
from which a jury even could reasonably conclude that the producer or
publisher possessed the actual intent to assist criminal activity.”

For his part, attorney Siegel continued to insist that the Paladin suit would have no impact on other works: “Siegel maintains that if Paladin goes
down, the sky will not fall on free expression,” reported The Washington Post on July 26. Siegel actually cited Oliver Stone's movie, “Natural Born
Killers,” as a work that would have no worry about such a lawsuit prevailing against it.

That view apparently does not hold with a number of Louisiana judges who have considered the suit by the family of a victim in a shooting spree by
two people who said they were incited by “Natural Born Killers.” A few days
ago, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the “Natural Born Killers” case could proceed. The decision upheld a Louisiana appeals court ruling that relied heavily on the 4th Circuit's forceful opinion in Rice v. Paladin.

So much for unfounded concerns.

If the Louisiana Supreme Court's decision holds up under appeal, the “Natural Born Killers” case will go to trial despite the fact that no U.S. court has ever held the maker or distributor of a movie liable for “copycat

What book or movie or song will its producers or creators have to endure the cost and pain of defending next?

The Turner Diaries, the novel by William Pierce that some say served as a blueprint for Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing? Or The
Technological Bluff,
by Jacques Ellul, and the novels of Joseph Conrad that were said to have influenced Unabomber Theodore J. Kaczynski? Or Final Exit, the best-selling book on suicide published by the Hemlock Society?

The fact is that there are no limits to the limits on free expression if publishers, broadcasters and the producers of movies and music can be held
responsible for the crimes of those who try to avoid responsibility by saying the book or the movie or the music “made me do it.”

The lawyers in the hit-man manual case set out to punish the publisher of “a
recipe for murder.” They should have known that trying to fine-tune the
First Amendment is a recipe for disaster.

Paul McMasters can be e-mailed at