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Gambit Weekly Violence on Trial

By Clancy DuBos

JUNE 1, 1998:  Louisiana has a history of giving rise to cutting-edge First Amendment cases. The latest case concerns Oliver Stone's film, Natural Born Killers, a movie that arguably has inspired a lot more viewing among lawyers and judges than it ever did among movie-goers -- and probably for good reason on both counts. At issue is whether filmmakers who make violent movies can be held liable for the violence that such films allegedly inspire in some viewers.

This case has far-reaching implications, and it raises a vexing dilemma among civil libertarians and First Amendment advocates.

As one judge recently noted, it marks the first time that on-screen violence itself (as opposed to, say, obscenity) may be put on trial.

The facts of the case are equally disturbing.

After watching a videotape of Natural Born Killers repeatedly one afternoon, Sarah Edmondson and Benjamin Darrus embarked on a similar crime spree in Mississippi and Louisiana, ostensibly tracing the footsteps of actors Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis. Along the way, Edmondson shot and seriously wounded Patsy Byers while robbing a Time Saver store in Ponchatoula. Darrus accompanied Edmondson, encouraged her and drove the getaway car. The shooting left Byers paralyzed, and she later died.

Byers' husband and three children are now suing Darrus, Edmondson and everyone associated with the making of Natural Born Killers. The case is a long way from trial, but the scope of the debate has already been framed.

The Hollywood defendants offer two arguments: (1) that Louisiana law does not allow people to sue filmmakers for damages allegedly caused by violent movies, and (2) even if such a claim were allowed under state law, it violates the First Amendment.

The trial judge agreed with those arguments and threw out the claims against the filmmakers. The Byers family appealed, and two weeks ago the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal reinstated the case.

As the case makes its way up to the state Supreme Court -- and possibly the U.S. Supreme Court -- various media heavyweights no doubt will line up behind the filmmakers.

But the battle lines are not that clear. While the First Amendment embodies cherished freedoms, it is by no means absolute. Courts rarely suppress expression in advance, but they often hold publishers and others accountable on the back end if they cross certain lines.

In fact, recent cases show that courts may be coming 'round to the Byers' point of view with regard to "artistic" expressions. A federal appeals court ruled last year that the publisher of a book containing step-by-step instructions on how to be a hit man could be held liable for the deaths of persons killed by a reader who followed those instructions to kill his victims. In that case, the publishers of Hit Man (along with a gang of media amici) argued that the book was protected by the First Amendment. The courts disagreed.

In the Byers case, Judge Brady Fitzsimmons of Louisiana's First Circuit quoted from the Hit Man decision in chastising "those who would, for profit or other motive, intentionally assist and encourage crime and then shamelessly seek refuge in the sanctuary of the First Amendment."

The appellate judges made it clear that their decision reviving the Byers case does not mean that Natural Born Killers actually triggered Patsy Byers' death. Rather, it gives her survivors the chance to prove -- if they can -- that Stone intended for the film to have that kind of effect.

Judge Fitzsimmons noted that "the issue of violence is one that has not been squarely submitted to the present Supreme Court for review in this format and intensity."

Indeed, it's hard to argue that it's time to put violence on trial. The question is, in condemning the message, do we also condemn the messenger?

More and more courts appear prepared to answer in the affirmative.

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