Defying precedent, not to mention common sense, the Supreme Court served a debilitating blow to the First Amendment by allowing a lawsuit against Natural Born Killers to move forward.
Director Oliver Stone, Time Warner Entertainment Co. and others are being sued for intentionally inspiring acts of crime and murder. The suit, brought by the family of Patsy Ann Byers, who was shot and paralyzed in a 1995 convenience store robbery (and has since died of cancer), alleges that the assailants, Sarah Edmonson and Benjamin Darras, were incited to violence after watching the Stone movie.
The defendants sought to have the case dismissed. However, a Louisiana appeals court ruled that the film was not subject to free speech protection because it allegedly incited “imminent lawless activity.” In March the Supreme Court had an opportunity to overturn this ruling. In failing to review the case, thus allowing the suit to proceed, the court has opened the gates for a deluge of ludicrous liability suits against the entertainment industry.
By ruling that NBK promotes “imminent lawless activity,” the Louisiana court is accusing the filmmakers of purposefully creating a movie with the intention of encouraging viewers to emulate the onscreen blood-sport. Without question, the modern Bonnie and Clyde story about Mickey and Mallory Knox, young lovers whose murderous exploits gained them national celebrity, is a horrifically violent movie. In comparison, Saving Private Ryan is a day at the beach. But the suggestion that the film was meant to serve as a motivational video for mass homicide is patently ridiculous. It is this Louisiana ruling which is providing the plaintiffs a detour around the First Amendment, and it is this Louisiana ruling which the Supreme Court should have overturned to secure the integrity of our free speech protections.
The case had yet to be tried and, according to all precedent, there is absolutely no way that the filmmakers will be found liable (note to reader: this writer also believed that there was no way O.J. would be acquitted). But by permitting the lawsuit to proceed, the Supreme Court is giving license to these types of liability claims. This is not a trivial matter. There is a fine line between litigation and extortion, a line which studio executives can’t afford to ignore.
As the NBK case moves forward, similar lawsuits will soon follow. Considering the legal costs and bad publicity involved, the effects of a flood of liability claims will surely spill over into other areas of filmmaking. Studios, wary of legal suits, will allow this threat to influence what movies are made. Just as the ratings system creates an arbitrary bar that directors must edit around, directors will be compelled to mutilate their work further to avoid potential liability.
Perhaps movies should just follow the example of those inane “coffee is hot” warnings. They can run a disclaimer in the opening credits: “This movie contains acts of violence. Please do not commit homicide at home.”
What is really baffling is why the Supreme Court has chosen to ignore all legal precedent. Is it a conspiracy against Oliver Stone? Not likely, but since there are few other explanations, I thought I’d throw that out.
Claims about movies, as well as music and books, inspiring acts of violence are hardly a new phenomenon. Lots of criminals try to minimize their own guilt by placing blame on others. Charles Manson pointed his finger at The Beatles. John Hinkley was a big fan of Taxi Driver before he tried to assassinate Reagan. Beavis and Butthead made kids light houses on fire. Even U2, those white-flag waving Irishmen, was implicated when actress Rebecca Schaffer’s murderer cited a Joshua Tree song in court.
What is ironic about this suit against Stone is that NBK, far from encouraging murder, is a commentary on our media-fueled, cultural obsession with violence. When he juxtaposed images of Hitler, Stalin and Holocaust victims with stock footage gore, do you think Stone was encouraging people to kill? And when the final credits roll over clips of the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbit and O.J., was he deifying these celebrity criminals? Obviously not everyone got his message. Whose fault is that?
No causal relationship has been found between watching violence and committing violence. Criminals have to get ideas somewhere: whether from home, movies, the evening news, The Iliad or from their own twisted imaginations. Holding artists responsible when a few sickos misinterpret their work as a call to arms is absurd. And it is untenable with our First Amendment rights.