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Supreme Court Declines to Bar Movie Lawsuit

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Supreme Court refused Monday to block a lawsuit at its preliminary stage that seeks to hold filmmaker Oliver Stone liable for a young couple’s murderous rampage in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The damage claim, filed on behalf of one victim’s family, maintains that Stone’s 1994 movie “Natural Born Killers” was intended to incite others to go on violent crime sprees.

If that were true, the movie would not be protected by the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, a Louisiana appeals court said last year in refusing to throw out the claim. But even that court conceded that it was highly unlikely the victim’s lawyers will be able to prove Stone or anyone connected with the movie actually intended for its viewers to rob and murder.

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court has declined to grant review at this stage of the case but that decision was not unexpected,” said Jack M. Weiss, counsel for Time Warner Entertainment Co., which produced the movie.

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Stone, Time Warner and others involved in making the film were sued by the relatives of Patsy Byers, a convenience store clerk in rural Louisiana who was shot and seriously wounded in March 1995. She died later of cancer.

The shooter, Sarah Edmonson and her accomplice, Benjamin Darrus, had repeatedly watched a videotape of the movie before their crime spree. They murdered a Mississippi man before heading to Louisiana.

The film, which starred Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, portrayed the pair on a killing rampage. The movie became a lightning rod of controversy, drawing condemnation from politicians because of its violent content.

Monday’s decision clears the way for the Lousiana lawyers to depose witnesses and seek other evidence that might bolster their claim that the film went beyond entertainment and was intended to inspire murder.

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Over the past 15 years, a series of lawsuits has sought to hold filmmakers or television networks liable for “copycat” crimes. The victims have maintained that they were hurt by someone who had seen a violent act on the screen and copied it in real life.

All those lawsuits ultimately have failed, according to legal experts.

“It is utterly implausible to argue that movie makers intend people to go out and kill after watching their movie,” said Rodney Smolla, a 1st Amendment expert at the University of Richmond Law School. “Most of these cases get thrown out at the summary judgment stage” before a jury trial, he said.

But the Louisiana court chose to assume at the preliminary stage that the lawyers for the plaintiff could prove Stone intended viewers to become killers, he noted.

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Others also have accused the movie of inciting violence. In 1996, writer John Grisham reportedly vetoed Harrelson for a role in the movie version of his novel “A Time to Kill” because a friend of Grisham’s had been murdered, allegedly by two teens who had just seen the film.

Since the 1920s, the Supreme Court has taken the view that the 1st Amendment shields speech in general, except when it creates a “clear and present danger” to cause violence, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it. In 1969, the court clarified this standard slightly and said that speech is protected unless it would “incite imminent lawless activity.” This remains the 1st Amendment rule today.

Two years ago, in something of a departure, a federal appeals court allowed a lawsuit to go to trial against the publisher of “Hit Man,” a book that instructs would-be contract murderers. The judges said that the book was not protected by the 1st Amendment because it intended to “incite lawless activity"--namely, murder.

Last year, the Supreme Court refused to hear the publisher’s appeal in that case, Rice vs. Palladin Press. The case is scheduled to go to trial in May.

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Douglas Mirell, a Los Angeles 1st Amendment lawyer and a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said he was troubled by the court’s action in the “Natural Born Killer” case.

“I think that Hollywood ought to be very concerned. There is no way of knowing what a jury would do if this case goes to trial,” he said.

Alan Isaacman, a Beverly Hills 1st Amendment lawyer who represents Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, said it is a “very dangerous road to go down” if society attempts to limit creative expression or permits lawsuits to proceed against works of art because of claims that someone imitating it committed a crime.

“There is no scientific evidence to indicate that a normal person would perform criminal acts as a result of seeing a movie,” Isaacman said. “If we attempt to remove anything from the movie world or from television or the print medium that may be interpreted by some individual with a mental problem in a way to cause him to do some criminal act, then the whole society will suffer.”

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In its appeal, lawyers for Time Warner and Stone said that filmmakers should not have to bear the legal expense of fighting a claim based on a far-fetched allegation about the filmmaker’s intent. The Louisiana court’s failure to dismiss the lawsuit “undermines 1st Amendment liberties throughout the nation and invites litigation against artists everywhere whenever criminal or demented conduct mimics artistic expression,” they told the high court.

But lawyers for the Louisiana plaintiff said they should be given a chance to build their case. Without comment, the justices denied the appeal in the case (Time Warner Entertainment vs. Byers, 98-1091).

“We will continue to defend vigorously the constitutional rights of artists and directors to express their creative ideas without fear of liability,” Weiss said. “We are fully confident that the courts will ultimately uphold those rights in this case.”


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