Hollywood Analysis: 'Killers' blame game

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, June 10 (UPI) -- A Louisiana appeals court ruling last week, throwing out a suit against Warner Bros. and director Oliver Stone over the ultra-violent movie "Natural Born Killers," was more than a victory for free speech -- it was also a useful reminder of the true meaning of personal accountability.

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed against Sarah Edmondson in 1995 by survivors of convenience store clerk Patsy Ann Byers, who Edmondson shot and killed during an armed robbery in 1994. Edmondson said she and Benjamin Darrus had been inspired to go on a violent crime spree after seeing Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as Mickey and Mallory -- the blood-soaked lovers who become media darlings in "Natural Born Killers."


She also said she and Darrus were tripping on LSD when they watched the movie. A few days later, Darrus had killed a man in Mississippi and Edmondson had killed Byers in Louisiana.


The wrongful death suit was amended in 1996 to include a new wrinkle -- a contention that the studio and the Oscar-winning director of "Platoon" and "Wall Street" knew or should have known that the film would provoke criminal behavior in people who saw it.

In 1998, the Louisiana appeals court ruled that Byers' family was legally entitled to sue Stone and the studio and argue that the movie incited the killing. In last week's ruling, the court said that procedural requirements precluded any consideration of First Amendment issues in the earlier ruling.

The latest ruling holds that speech can be restrained, but only when it is an incitement to lawless action. The justices ruled that nothing in "Natural Born Killers" constitutes incitement.

Stone called the ruling a victory for free speech.

"At a time when our freedoms seem uncertain on every front," said Stone, "it gives me great hope that the courts validated 100 percent the true meaning of our First Amendment."

Warner Bros. called the ruling "an important victory for filmmakers and all those involved in the dissemination of entertainment and information."

Freedom of expression is just one compelling reason why a free society should reject any suggestion that a movie can make someone commit a crime. Another is that to accept such a notion would turn the principal of personal accountability on its ear.


There is ample research to support the contention that repeated exposure to violent media images can promote violent behavior, but that is not the same thing as the simple cause-and-effect proposition behind the "Natural Born Killers" lawsuit.

In the case of Stone's movie, the violence was unquestionably over the top. However, any argument that it was enough to cause violence must also leave room for the counter-argument that it was so grotesque, it might even had have the effect of discouraging violent behavior by depicting it in such a repulsive light.

As Stone has pointed out endlessly, the movie did not glorify violence. Rather, it derided a media culture that glorifies violence in the process of commercializing it, and thereby profiting from it.

"The Media Made Them Superstars," read the poster for the movie. Other advertising heralded: "In the media circus of life, they were the main attraction."

It would be callous to suggest that victims' survivors take a joke, but there is no need to show compassion for social critics who too often jump on such cases, knee-jerk style, to promote crusades against media violence on general principal.

The court conceded that Edmondson and Darrus had engaged in a "copycat scenario," but ultimately put the blame where it belonged.


"Edmondson's and Darrus' decision to imitate the characters of a film is more a regrettable commentary on their own culpability than a danger of free expression requiring courts to chill such speech through civil penalties," the court said.

The plaintiffs can petition the Louisiana Supreme Court for a further appeal.

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