Murder by the book: Free speech takes a hit

Monday, May 24, 1999

It is a grisly story.

Mildred Horn, her quadriplegic son, Trevor, and his nurse, Janice Saunders, were brutally murdered in Silver Spring, Md., on March 3, 1993. James Edward Perry, a Detroit street thug, was quickly caught and convicted of the murders. Also caught and convicted for hiring Perry was Mrs. Horn’s estranged husband, Lawrence, who had hoped to inherit the $1.7 million awarded Trevor in a medical-malpractice case.

For their criminal carnage, Lawrence Horn received a life sentence and Perry received a death sentence.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The families of the victims filed civil suits against Paladin Enterprises of Denver, publisher of a book called Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, because prosecutors in the criminal trial said Perry had used the 130-page book as a blueprint for the crime. The families wanted the publisher brought to justice, too.

The trial was to have begun today in a federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Md. On Friday, May 21, however, the insurance company for Paladin elected to settle rather than put the case to jurors, who might be inflamed by recent school shootings and a general assault on media violence.

That leaves unsettled the question of whether the First Amendment dodged a bullet or missed an opportunity.

There were disturbing implications for freedom of expression in the Paladin suits. Holding those who produce speech accountable for the criminal actions of those who see, hear or read that speech inevitably would deny Americans access to enormous amounts of information and entertainment.

With that in mind, many First Amendment advocates were relieved when a federal judge granted a summary motion to dismiss the suit in 1997. But the 4th Circuit Court reversed that decision last year and the Supreme Court sent the case back for the trial that was supposed to begin this week.

For their part, lawyers for the families insisted that the civil action was not about censorship or limiting freedom of speech. They asserted that the facts were unique, that the case was “one-of-a-kind,” that there would be no danger to other works, especially fiction.

But the ink was hardly dry on the 4th Circuit ruling on this one-of-a-kind case against a “murder manual” when the Louisiana Supreme Court cited it in a decision allowing a lawsuit to proceed against the producers of “Natural Born Killers.” Of course, “Natural Born Killers” is a movie, not a manual. It is fictional, not factual. And until the Hit Man case came along, its protection under the First Amendment was secure.

The Hit Man settlement demonstrates just how vulnerable formerly unassailable speech has become. The public seems to have little patience for the relatively abstract notion of free speech when dealing with the palpable fear and anger aroused by the reality of Littleton, the Georgia school shootings last week, and a general perception that there is too much crime and violence in our midst.

Thus, we are confronted with these recent assaults on First Amendment freedoms:

  • An Oregon jury awarded more than $100 million to the plaintiffs in a suit against an anti-abortion Web site.
  • A Michigan jury awarded $25 million to the plaintiffs in a suit against “The Jenny Jones Show.”
  • Parents of children slain in a Kentucky school shooting filed a $130 million suit against two Internet sites, several computer game companies, and the makers and distributors of the 1995 movie, “The Basketball Diaries.”

  • Of course, plaintiffs’ lawyers in the Hit Man case would say they have no responsibility for the misuse and abuse of their lawsuit, but the thought occurs that the Hit Man suit could have served as a blueprint for these subsequent legal actions. And an argument could be made that they should have foreseen the potential violence against freedom of expression.

    There is no doubt that a book that passes itself off as a manual for killing (even though it was written by a woman with no experience in that “occupation” and originally as a work of fiction) is sick and wrong. But worse is the idea that words rather than deeds must be punished.

    And as pathetic as we might find this book and its publisher to be, the fact remains that a book cannot kill or incite to kill. It doesn’t matter what is in the mind of the publisher, but what is in the heart of the killer. The publisher of a book is no more liable for murders done by a reader than the manufacturer of a gun is liable for murder done by a purchaser.

    Yet Paladin settled rather than rely on a jury to recognize the profound constitutional implications of this case. That is a subtle yet substantive rebuke of our First Amendment heritage.

    Freedom of speech doesn’t disappear in one dramatic instant — or one lawsuit. Instead, it shrinks and shrivels a little at a time. That barely visible process makes the loss no less profound.

    And that process will continue unabated if the legal system continues to broaden the definition of intent and expand the scope of negligence, and if as a society we choose increasingly to measure justice by whether someone with deep pockets has had to pay.

    As for those who continue to insist that the Hit Man case posed no harm to First Amendment freedoms, the fact is that there is no way to make a surgical strike against freedom of speech. There always will be collateral damage, and the court precedent set by a “one-of-a-kind” case takes root in constitutional jurisprudence and lies in wait for yet another act of expression that someone claims is an act of violence.

    That, too, is a grisly story.

    Paul McMasters can be contacted at