If I write a mystery novel in which a murder is committed in a particularly gruesome way, and someone reads that novel and commits a similar crime, am I responsible? If I produce a…
If I write a mystery novel in which a murder is committed in a particularly gruesome way, and someone reads that novel and commits a similar crime, am I responsible? If I produce a film rather than a book, does that change the result?
That is the question currently working its way through the courts, in a case against Oliver Stone. The plaintiffs allege that Stone’s movie "Natural Born Killers" triggered copycat murders in Louisiana, and that he must be held liable for the killings.
It is tempting enough to decry violence in the media. Most thoughtful people share a concern that graphic and bloody depictions coarsen and cheapen the culture. Psychologists debate whether such expression desensitizes consumers or, alternatively, provide an outlet for aggressions that might be more destructively deployed. Finding a causal relationship between movie violence and real-world crime sufficient to impose legal liability, however, is another matter entirely.
Is it forseeable that out of the millions who may watch a successful film, there will be some who are mentally deranged? Obviously. How do we require writers and artists to create only such work as will not trigger an antisocial response in such people? How do we even know what elements are likely to resonate with someone who is mentally ill?
If I am a businessperson who makes paint, and a consumer chooses to drink the paint rather than applying it to a canvas, should I be held liable for his illness or death? Is there any product that cannot be misused, any book or movie or painting that cannot be misinterpreted or misappropriated?
If my husband reads "Taming of the Shrew" and decides that the appropriate way to deal with his uppity and opinionated wife is by spanking, is Shakespeare guilty of inciting to battery?
The "Natural Born Killers" lawsuit is being discussed in terms of the First Amendment. While that is understandable, I think it misses the point. The issue is even more basic than the right of an artist (good or bad) to communicate a point of view that others may find objectionable or even dangerous. The issue is personal responsibility.
In a free society, I am responsible for my actions. It is not the responsibility of "society" or the state to protect me from every influence that might incite me to harm someone, even if it were possible to do so. Not so long ago, people snickered at the so-called "Twinkie Defense"–an argument mounted by lawyers for a couple of accused murderers to the effect that their clients had been in the grip of urges brought on by too much of the refined sugars found in Twinkies and similar snack items. The jury didn’t buy it then, and the courts shouldn’t buy it now. Whether it is Twinkies or Natural Born Killers, our system is premised on a belief in free will and personal responsibility. In the final analysis, individuals make the choices and individuals must be responsible for the consequences.