The Thirteenth Victim: The First Amendment?
by Scott Mendelson
Imagine, if you will, an increasingly plausible future scenario. You are angry about affirmative action. So, you write a letter to the editor to USA Today. You state that something has to be done about this situation. You state that action must be taken to avert this alleged injustice. In response to your letter, a disturbed, angry loner whom you have never met walks into the local NAACP building and opens fire. You are then sued by the families of the victims. Your crime? You wrote material that you should have known could have inspired a crime. You put out a call for protest, but you should have known it could have been taken as a call to arms.
We, as a nation, must finally accept the fact that art, be it a Marilyn Manson concert, or the Statue of David, cannot be blamed when people act out in response to exposure. The sheer volume of violent material available vs. the number who have chosen to act violently in response to such images all but excludes the theory that Hollywood causes our nation to become kill. Television, books, music, video games, or movies are not capable of turning completely healthy individuals into sociopaths. Besides, if this is the case, why are there so few acts of similar violence in Japan or Great Britain, where citizens see the same television and movies, listen to the same music, and read many of the same books? The seed of discontent must be planted by other factors before a person turns to ways to recreate a fantasy. Of course, I have always believed that such sexual or violent material can actually prevent violence by providing a healthy outlet for fantasy, but that is for another day.* If one artist is capable of such impact, then every artist is. One man's Howard Stern is another man's Mr. Rogers.
There are two lawsuits in place right now that allege responsibility on the part of various entertainment companies for acts of violence. The suits allege that Hollywood is to blame because Hollywood should have known that, out of 270 million people, a choice few could use their work as possible inspiration for violence.
At this present moment, Oliver Stone and Warner Bros. are being sued for just this offense. According to the plaintiffs, Stone and company should have logically expected two kids to view Natural Born Killers, get high on drugs, and kill someone during a stickup. Even though the film attacked the concept of a media that glamorizes violence, he and others are now being sued because someone didn't get the joke. By this concept, Steven Spielberg will be held responsible, should someone ever watch Saving Private Ryan, which many teens enjoyed as a 160-minute gore-fest, and go on a killing spree. All forms of expression send all kinds of messages to all kinds of people.
There is another lawsuit being brought against Time Warner, Sony Pictures, Id Games, and various Internet porn sites. Filed by the families of the three students killed in a Kentucky high-school shooting last year, it alleges that the makers of Doom, the producers of Internet pornography sites, and the makers of The Basketball Diaries, a flawed if well-intentioned film concerning teen drug addiction, are responsible for the actions of one misguided teenager.
Although I often shy away from blaming the parents, as it is often undeserved scorn, I must ask who allowed the child to view such sites or play such games? As for the film, an art-house flick starring Leonardo DiCaprio that few people saw in its initial theatrical run, the suit alleges that the teen was inspired by a dream sequence where DiCaprio kills classmates with a shotgun. If this scene is truly responsible, how can we justify the constant display of this scene during the past two weeks on countless news stations that allegedly impressionable kids can view? Ten million people saw Natural Born Killers. At most, a dozen acted out following the viewing. How many were high on drugs at the time? Why are the drug dealers not being sued? By this rationale, after the release of Free Willy, there should have been dozens of incidents of people breaking into their local Sea World to free Shamu. Are we to deny free expression to the masses on the account of the few disturbed individuals who would copy a work of art? Are we to ban Shakespeare when people start beheading others after reading Macbeth? Are we to blame J.D. Salinger because Mark David Chapman was carrying Catcher in the Rye when he killed John Lennon?
What about lawsuits filed against God? If such cases triumph, I'm sure the families who have lost relatives in abortion-protest killings would love to have money from those who produced The Bible, which possibly inspired those who kill in the name of Jesus Christ. Would Jesus condone such things? Probably not, but that is irrelevant in such lawsuits. He should have known that teaching his gospel would have led others to commit murder in his name.
Quite simply, if either of these lawsuits triumph, the first amendment will be a thing of the past. From then on, you will be in constant fear of what you say and what you write. If someone uses your written or spoken word as inspiration for a crime, you will be held liable, regardless of your true message. We will thus live in a nation of voluntary censorship. Don't let our most precious freedom become the next victim of random violence.
* For more information regarding the positive link between pornography and violence, send a note to for a copy of my term paper on the subject.