Court ruling deals blow to free speech

November 17, 1997|By Ray Jenkins

LAST WEEK, a federal appellate court, whose jurisdiction includes Maryland, dealt a stunning blow to freedom of the press by ruling that book publishers may be sued for the actions of their readers. If this decision is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, the impact on scholarship, journalism and literature could be incalculable.

Just the facts

The facts of the case are wrenching: In 1993, Lawrence Horn hired a ''hit man'' named James Perry to murder Horn's ex-wife, his 8-year-old quadriplegic son and the child's nurse at a house in Wheaton. Perry carried out the bloody deeds with a grim precision as outlined in a depraved book entitled ''Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors,'' a copy of which was found in Perry's room. Both men were convicted, with Perry getting a death sentence, and Horn life without parole.

A fitting end, you might say. But it was not the end. Last year, survivors of the murder victims sued Paladin Press, a lunatic-fringe publisher in Boulder, Colo., charging that their murder manual ''aided and abetted'' in the killings. Maryland Federal District Judge Alexander Williams dismissed the case on the grounds that book publishers don't forfeit their First Amendment rights ''simply because the publication of an idea creates a potential hazard.''

But the survivors, now supported by assorted victim-rights groups, appealed Judge Williams' decision, and a week ago, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Paladin Press can, indeed, be held liable on the grounds that Perry had ''meticulously followed'' Paladin's book in committing the three murders.

The devil's due

Granted, it is tempting to say that Paladin at last is getting what it deserves; after all, this is the same sleazy outfit that published manuals used by Timothy McVeigh to make the fertilizer bombs which blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. But we should remember the trenchant remark of a very wise Supreme Court justice that major constitutional-rights decisions usually grow out of cases involving ''not very nice people.''

No one, least of all the courts, has ever suggested that speech and writing cannot be punished if the words become an integral part of the crime itself -- specific instructions to specific individuals to carry out specific crimes. But in such cases, the one who gives the orders is subject to prosecution as much as the person who carried out the crime. This is a far cry from the Paladin case. Could Paladin have been criminally prosecuted in the murder case? Of course not.

In his opinion, Judge J. Michael Luttig cites dozens of prior cases which he claims support his decision that Paladin can be sued. But he ignores a famous landmark case in 1979 in which the government sought to prevent The Progressive magazine from publishing ''secrets'' which might help others make hydrogen bombs. In that case, the government was laughed out of court when The Progressive demonstrated that it got all of the information in its article from public libraries.

It is ludicrous to suggest that the government may not punish someone for writing a manual on how to make a hydrogen bomb, but yet private individuals may sue someone for publishing a manual on the ''techniques'' of killing.

Where will this stop?

If the Fourth Circuit's decision stands, it is fair to ask, just where will this stop? Recently, for example, I published a book about a mail-bomb assassination, which includes a detailed account of how the killer assembled his bomb in a home workshop, using, for the most part, materials obtained in supermarkets; the book jacket even included a diagram of the bomb. Could I be sued if someone replicated these steps and killed with a mail bomb?

Could a newspaper be sued if ''copycat'' killers carried out murders based on descriptions of crimes in news stories?

Could the authors of ''Final Exit,'' a widely distributed manual instructing the terminally ill how to end their lives prematurely, be sued by the family of someone who commits suicide?

Could the Wall Street Journal be sued by the government because readers acted on editorials, which could fairly be interpreted as encouraging people to violate the tax laws?

Could the Army be sued if someone got an old training manual and followed the instructions on throwing hand grenades?

These are not frivolous hypotheticals, mind you. If the Paladin case is upheld, they become very real possibilities.

Even leaving these considerations aside, in the age of instantaneous computerized dissemination of information, the court's decision is simply an exercise in futility.

And nothing more clearly demonstrates this absurdity and futility than Judge Luttig's own opinion, which was placed on the

Internet within hours after it was rendered -- and thus is now freely available to millions. In that opinion, Judge Luttig reproduces dozens of pages straight out of Paladin's ''Hit Man.'' So now, incipient contract murderers who want to know how to kill no longer need to buy ''Hit Man'' -- they can just read Judge Luttig's opinion on the Internet.

And if someone does read it, and kills someone, why shouldn't Judge Luttig be sued for ''aiding and abetting'' in the murder?

Ray Jenkins is the retired editorial-page editor of the Evening Sun.

Pub Date: 11/17/97

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