Free speech and the fruits of crime

August 02, 1993

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is planning to go to court Thursday to get a copy of a movie (or book or television) contract between Ronald W. Price, the Anne Arundel school teacher charged with sexual misbehavior, and some unknown entity. You might think this was a private matter between Mr. Price and another party. It should be, but Maryland has a law requiring that "notoriety of crimes contracts" be submitted to the attorney general, and that money earned by the person charged with the crimes be used to pay claims against that person by the victims. Mr. Curran wants to see the contract in order to take steps to confiscate any money paid to the teacher.

Mr. Price's lawyer said of the Curran effort, "Joe Curran is running for governor, and this is nothing more than a media event." In a sense, the fact that Mr. Curran is running for governor was an element in his decision-making. It would have been if he were running for re-election, too. The law is on the books, it is popular, and for an attorney general not to invoke it would be political folly.

So we can't fault Mr. Curran for going after Mr. Price under the law. If we were to fault him for anything in this affair it would be for going along with the rescue effort to keep the law on the books last year, after the Supreme Court ruled that an almost identical law in New York was unconstitutional. Said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for a unanimous court, "New York has singled out speech on a particular subject for a financial burden that it places on no other speech and no other income. The state's interest in compensating victims from the fruits of crime is a compelling one, but the. . . law is not narrowly tailored to advance that objective. As a result the statute is inconsistent with the First Amendment."

Pressured by the victims' rights lobby, the attorney general and the General Assembly slightly rewrote the Maryland law, but they hardly "narrowly tailored" it to the point that it would meet Justice O'Connor's objections. All the rewrite really did was exempt from the state's reach royalties earned by such lawbreaker autobiographers as Martin Luther King Jr., Bertrand Russell and St. Augustine. Justice O'Connor made a point of noting that they would have been covered by the New York law. But Maryland's law still singles out one kind of speech and burdens it. Therefore, it is still inconsistent with the First Amendment.

Even those who believe the public might profit from reading the confessions of a man like Ronald Price are uneasy about his profiting monetarily from his crimes, but the First Amendment is broad in its protection of freedom of speech. It has to be to protect the rest of us.

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