Who’s to blame? People, not movies

We are indeed becoming a nation of victims. A Louisiana woman, Patsy Byers, filed a lawsuit last month that states movie director Oliver Stone and his film “Natural Born Killers” are to blame for influencing two teen-agers to go on a June 1995 crime spree that left her paralyzed from the neck down. The teens, Sarah Edmondson and Ben Darras, allegedly took LSD and reported watching the movie 20 times before the shooting. The pair is also charged with killing a Mississippi man, William Savage, the day before they shot Byers.
Byers’ lawsuit, which also names Time Warner Inc., Warner Bros. and several production companies, accuses the defendants of producing and “distributing a film which they knew or should have known would cause and inspire people to commit crimes.” But to blame a film — a spool of colored plastic, when it comes down to it — shifts responsibility from the true victimizers: two disturbed individuals on mind-altering drugs.
This sort of lawsuit is, unfortunately, not out of the ordinary. In this case, however, there is a twist. Attorney-novelist John Grisham has joined in the fray, calling for Stone and others who produce violent films to be held liable for damages brought about by the film. A friend of Savage’s, Grisham loosely compared films to products like breast implants: “If something goes wrong with the product, whether by design or by defect, and injury ensues, then its makers are held responsible.”
But Grisham, whose fourth book-turned-movie, “A Time To Kill,” reaches theaters this summer, should be careful what he asks for. In his book, a black man is charged with the murder of a white man who raped and killed his daughter. A contrived temporary insanity defense proves successful and the avenger goes free. Following Grisham’s logic, we could assume that because of his book and the film based on it, Grisham should be held liable for any number of revenge killings that are sure to follow. We assume Grisham would agree.
Whatever happened to personal responsibility? When a person’s actions are called into question these days, that person often fingers another with the blame. In an article in LA Weekly, Stone wrote, “Has your father been brutalized? Sue Oedipus and call Hamlet as a witness.” In that light, as intended, Byers’ and Grisham’s claims seem foolish. Nevertheless, juries (for some reason) often give credit to arguments that rational people would discount.
“Natural Born Killers” has been cited in numerous criminal cases across the country, but so was “A Clockwork Orange,” where the anti-hero rapes an old woman while crooning “Singing in the Rain.” “A Clockwork Orange” was banned in the United Kingdom shortly after its 1971 release. Could the same thing happen here in the United States, where the First Amendment is the cornerstone of the country? We hope not.
These crimes are tragic — no argument there. But Stone, Warner Bros. and others in the entertainment industry are not to blame. Responsibility rests solely with the individuals who committed the crime. In the meantime, the right to free expression is undergoing another frontal assault. Should Stone and company lose in court, the results for each and every one of us could be frightening.