Free speech has a limit, and 'Hit Man' shatters it

November 19, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

Ah, that ever nettlesome First Amendment, what with its stipulation that forbids the government from making any law that prohibits free speech. Just what are the limits of free speech, anyway?

The debate will rage on virtually forever. Judges can't even agree. A gaggle of idiots in Boulder, Colo., known as Paladin Press published a book called "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors." The book is what it says: a treatise on how to efficiently commit homicide.

One Lawrence T. Horn then hired one James E. Perry to murder Horn's ex-wife, his 8-year-old quadriplegic son and the boy's nurse. Perry followed 27 instructions from the book in cold-bloodedly snuffing out the lives of his victims in their Silver Spring home. Officials at Paladin Press sat back on their sorry butts and smugly proclaimed their lack of involvement in the affair. When survivors of the victims filed a lawsuit, Paladin skulked behind the First Amendment for protection.

In August 1996, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Paladin was not liable in the deaths, claiming the book "simply does not fall within the parameters of any of the recognized exceptions to the general First Amendment principles of freedom of speech."

One year and two months later, a federal appellate court said just the opposite. Earlier this month, judges ruled that Paladin was liable, citing the book's "evident lack of any even arguably legitimate purpose beyond the promotion and teaching of murder."

Some see all kinds of disastrous things happening to free speech rights as a result of the appeals court ruling, conjuring up visions of folks suing publishers and editors and writers for all kinds of things. We need to remind these folks that the First Amendment is a man-made law, not an edict from God. Free speech does have its limits. Our Founding Fathers wouldn't mind if we drew the line at a book that explicitly gives instructions on how to commit murder.

The controversy over "Hit Man" isn't like other free speech controversies that have surfaced in recent years. The book isn't like so-called gangsta rap, a genre of music that is sometimes violent and sometimes uplifting, depending on the artist and the message. Gangsta rap critics are incapable of making such distinctions and thus attack the entire genre, making fools of themselves in the process.

But there have been rap songs that talk explicitly of violence against the police. One man who murdered a deputy sheriff in Texas claimed lyrics from the late Tupac Shakur's "2Pacalypse Now" album made him do it. But Shakur's song wasn't a how-to on killing police, with explicit instructions. It's not that there's a fine line between a work of art that depicts or describes an act of violence and a book that gives advice on murder. The fact is you could fit the Grand Canyon between the two.

Officials at Paladin Press, before they published "Hit Man," should have read a book on the market now called "There's No Such Thing As Free Speech, And That's A Good Thing." Anybody with even a shred of common sense knows that you can't say or write anything about any subject at any time you please. The publisher of this paper knows it. So do its editors. That's why newspapers and magazines across the country go through a self-censorship process that's more stringent than any a court or a legislature would impose.

Unlike the bozos at Paladin, most editors and publishers know that the First Amendment's forbidding government from making a law impinging on freedom of speech doesn't mean that private individuals can't sue you. One judge might throw their cases out. Another might rule for the plaintiffs. Printing something that's simply offensive may be protected under the First Amendment. A how-to manual on murder isn't, thank God, an appeals court has ruled.

For years Americans have flailed their arms, proudly proclaiming their tradition of freedom. Every so often - say, like when a book like "Hit Man" is published - we should pause and ask ourselves, "Freedom to do what?" The Founding Fathers didn't leave us a Bill of Responsibilities to go along with the Bill of Rights. They trusted us to handle the responsibility part ourselves.

"There's always an element of crime in freedom," the late Ralph Ellison wrote in his novel "Invisible Man." We should be cognizant that we keep that element to a minimum.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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