Byers v. Edmondson, 712 So.2d 681 (1999) (‘‘Natural Born Killers’’ Case)

2012-01-13 01:47:05

The judgment rendered concerns the issue of whether the film Natural Born Killers is protected speech under the First Amendment, that is, should movie producers, directors, and studios be responsible for encouraging criminal behavior? Attorneys for the producers and director of the movie Natural Born Killers petitioned Louisiana’s high court to review a lower court ruling that they say is the first of ‘‘American court decisions to hold that the creators of a fictional story can be sued for the deviant criminal acts of alleged imitators or copycats.’’ The Louisiana Court of Appeals upheld a District Court summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The Court found that, contrary to plaintiffs’ claims, ‘‘nothing in [the film] constitutes incitement,’’ and therefore is protected speech.

Patsy Byers, a clerk shot by a young man and woman robbing a convenience store, sued Time Warner, Inc. and Oliver Stone in July 1995, alleging that they were responsible for her paralyzing injuries. Her lawsuit claimed that she was shot because the young couple was enamored with the movie Natural Born Killers and its glamorization of violent behavior. According to the attorney for the Byers estate, Time Warner and Oliver Stone should be liable for ‘‘intentionally, recklessly, or negligently including in the video subliminal images which either directly advocated violent activity or which would cause viewers to repeatedly view the video and thereby become more susceptible to its advocacy of violent activity.’’

In May 1998, a Louisiana appeals court reversed the ruling that the trial court should not have dismissed the case and the plaintiffs presented adequate allegations to avoid dismissal on First Amendment grounds. Byers’ allegations, which the appeals court said it had to accept as true at the early procedural stage of the lawsuit, are that the movie falls into a category of speech that directly incites and will likely lead to imminent, lawless action, which is unprotected by the First Amendment. In reaching its decision, the Louisiana appeals court relied on Rice v. Paladin Enterprises, Inc. (1997), in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the First Amendment did not merit wrongful death action against the publishers of an instructional book titled Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors.

In their appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, attorneys for the defendants noted that ‘‘no court in American has ever held a filmaker or film distributor liable for injuries allegedly resulting from imitation of a film.’’ Their argument addressed the issue of whether ‘‘the specter of such boundless liability would cause those who create movies, music, books, and other creative works to avoid controversial or provocative subjects.’’