The Columbine ruling reaffirmed the logic of an earlier case from 2000. In 1997, a 14-year-old student named Michael Carneal killed three students and wounded five at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, with a .22 caliber pistol. The families of Carneal’s victims filed a $33 million lawsuit that blamed Time Warner and other companies for the shooting. As in Columbine, the plaintiffs singled out the video game “Doom,” which they claimed had “trained Carneal to point and shoot a gun … making him an effective killer.” A lower court dismissed the case and the dismissal was subsequently upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio. In language that may prove directly relevant to the Batman case, the court found that it was “simply too far a leap from shooting characters on a video screen (an activity undertaken by millions) to shooting people in a classroom (an activity undertaken by a handful, at most).”
Even lawsuits against one of the more violent films of the past 20 years, Oliver Stone’s 1994 “Natural Born Killers,” have failed to win over the courts. For years the film, which tells the story of two psychopathic serial killers, had been accused of inspiring copycat crimes. The most compelling suit was filed by Patsy Ann Byers, a Louisiana woman who was shot and paralyzed from the neck down when two adults went on a violent spree after watching the film and taking LSD. In her suit, Byers blamed Oliver Stone and Time Warner, claiming that they “knew or should have known” that the film would inspire people to commit violent crimes. After several rounds of litigation, the suit was finally dismissed in 2001 after a Louisiana judge found no evidence that the defendants had intended to encourage imitative violence.
If the courts have generally been reluctant to hold media and entertainment companies liable for acts of violence, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts has cemented a further defense by finding violent films and video games protected under the First Amendment — even when the circumstances are unusual. Last June, in the case of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the Supreme Court overturned a California law that made it a crime to sell or rent violent video games to minors. Although California claimed that the law was necessary to protect minors from “psychological and neurological harm,” the court rejected that argument, noting that the state did not have a right to limit the First Amendment on these grounds. Justice Scalia, generally not known for his deference to the rights of juveniles, observed that the state does not have “a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.”
In light of the steep challenges to its success, Torrence Brown, Jr.’s suit mostly serves as a sad reminder that some will always try to exploit human tragedy for financial gain. The impulse for justice after a heinous crime like Aurora is appropriate, but it should be directed at those responsible, in this case the plainly deranged James Holmes. But the fact that Holmes will get his deserved day in court doesn’t mean others are similarly worthy.
Jacob Laksin is co-author, with David Horowitz, of The New Leviathan: How the left-wing money machine shapes American politics and threatens America’s future. Follow him on Twitter.