Media Liability for Causing Physical Harm

If a journalist or entertainer directly injures another person or damages property while pursuing a news story or performing, legal liability arises just as in any other setting. Engaging in expressive activity creates no shield or immunity for such harms as assault or trespass for which any other perpetrator would have to compensate a victim. Hard questions arise, however, when media activity is blamed for having indirectly caused physical harm, such as when the assailant has just watched a violent movie, played a violent video game, or read a book that offers detailed instructions for murder.

Victims have frequently brought suit against the creator, producer, or distributor of the violent material that allegedly caused them harm, claiming that a legal duty of care had been breached and thus created a wrong for which damages should be recoverable. The courts have dismissed almost all such lawsuits, typically because the requisite causal link between the violent material and the injury could not be established; in virtually all such cases someone else’s unlawful act inflicted the injury, whatever material that person may have read or seen. Some courts have added their concern that, even if the causal link could be proved, imposing such liability on the media or entertainment purveyors would severely chill freedom of speech and press. Indeed, only three courts have ever ruled that such liability could be imposed; most recently a federal appeals court allowed a murder victim’s family to sue the publisher of a book (Hit-Man Manual) that a hired assassin had followed in committing the homicide.

WILLIAM E. LEE

References and Further Reading

  • O’Neil, Robert M. The First Amendment and Civil Liability. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

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