Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene
Natural Born Product
Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer
Should a director be held legally responsible for the actions of people who see his films?
It's not as ridiculous as it sounds. The courts are already about to decide this crucial question.
A year ago in March, Benjamin Darrus and his 18-year-old girlfriend Sarah Edmondson watched Oliver Stone's film "Natural Born Killers" more than 20 times. Then they took LSD and went on a crime spree. They are alleged to have murdered a man named Bill Savage in Mississippi and then the next day robbed a convenience store in Louisiana, where Sarah Edmondson shot clerk Patsy Ann Byers. Byers survived the shooting but is paralyzed from the neck down.
Byers initially filed a civil damages lawsuit against the girl's parents and their homeowners insurance carrier. Last month, however, her lawyer amended that lawsuit to include Oliver Stone, Time-Warner, Warner Brothers, Warner Home Video, and other companies who had a hand in making or distributing the tape.
Byers and her attorney are saying that director Stone and Time-Warner distributed "a film which they knew or should have known would cause and inspire people to commit crimes; and for producing and distributing a film which glorified the type of violence committed by treating individuals who commit such violence as celebrities and heroes." [You've gotta read that last sentence twice because it's in legalese]. They're suing for $20 million.
Oliver Stone and HIS attorneys argue that a film alone can't lead one to commit a crime. They're also citing artistic freedom and First Amendment rights. It's pretty much what you'd expect each side to contend.
But here's where it gets interesting: It seems that best-selling author John Grisham (who is also an attorney) knew and was friends with Bill Savage -- the guy this pair is said to have killed the day before they robbed the convenience store. Grisham is siding with the plaintiffs -- and of course, these days when John Grisham speaks, the entertainment industry listens.
Grisham has a unique approach, however. He wants films (and presumably books and other media as well) to be considered PRODUCTS. And so just as manufacturers of breast implants that leak or automobiles which explode are held accountable for the damages THEIR product caused, Grisham feels that artists can likewise be held responsible for any damage THEIR work causes. And he thinks that Time-Warner and Stone are liable for the "damages."
Should films or books or TV shows or any work of alleged art be subjected to the same product liability statues as seat belts and silicone implants? To have a best-selling author say that they SHOULD is something to think about.
I mean, I don't want to defend Stone or the film "Natural Born Killers." I didn't like it. I, too, thought it was too gory and violent, too surreal, too bizarre. I understand that Stone says it was supposed to be a satire on our culture's appetite for violence and the media making heroes of those who are violent. I understand that. I just don't think it worked or made its point. But what I think about the film or Oliver Stone really doesn't matter. (Although anyone who targets both Lyndon Johnson AND Richard Nixon can't be ALL bad!)
If people copy stuff that they see in films, is it the film-makers' fault?
It's easy to say, "no." Especially if you don't know murder victim Bill Savage or the now-paralyzed Patsy Byers.
Can you sue Columbia Pictures if a kid clunks his brother over the head with a hammer after watching the Three Stooges? Can you sue Riverside Press if you kill someone after reading Shakespeare's "Macbeth"?
But on the other hand, can Oliver Stone and Arnold Schwatzenegger and movie studios make a bazillion bucks by feeding us a steady supply of murder and mayhem and then claim that the rising tide of senseless violence in this country is not (even partially) attributable to them?
As a wise man once told me, "I don't know the answer. But I certainly appreciate the problem."
We're back to the age-old question of whether the media INFLUENCES our behavior or merely MIRRORS it.
Are film-makers and writers and singers making a First Amendment-protected "statement" or are they producing a "product?" What IS the difference these days?
And can they be held legally responsible if someone commits a crime "under the influence" of their work?
If I had the answers to these weighty questions, I'd be running Time-Warner. Or maybe sitting on the Supreme Court.
And I'm not sure what I'd say even if I were.
It IS something for media literate citizens of our society to think about, though.
Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.