If Books Could Kill

On May 25, that place is a federal district courtroom in Maryland, where Judge Alexander Williams will preside over Rice v. Paladin Enterprises. Williams is very familiar with the case; he threw out the original suit in 1996. But even in that decision, he made his disgust with Hit Man very clear: "Paladin engaged in a marketing strategy intended to attract and assist criminals and would-be criminals who desire information and instructions on how to commit crimes. In publishing, marketing, advertising and distributing Hit Man and Silencers, Paladin intended and had knowledge that their publications would be used, upon receipt, by criminals and would-be criminals to plan and execute the crime of murder for hire...The court read Hit Man in its entirety. Its content is enough to engender nausea in many readers. This court, quite candidly, personally finds the book to be reprehensible and devoid of any significant redeeming social value. Nevertheless, however loathesome one characterizes the publication, Hit Man simply does not fall within the parameters of any of the recognized exemptions to the general First Amendment principles of freedom of speech."

The fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, overturning Williams's decision: "This book constitutes the archetypal example of speech which--because it methodically and comprehensively prepares and steels its audience to specific criminal conduct through exhaustively detailed instructions to the planning, commission and concealment of criminal conduct--finds no preserve in the First Amendment." After the Supreme Court refused to hear the publisher's appeal, the case was finally set for trial.

Heavy-hitters have lined up on both sides. Denver attorney Tom Kelley is defending Lund, and numerous media organizations have filed briefs in support of Paladin's constitutional rights; the family's attorneys have been joined by another First Amendment expert, law professor Rodney Smolla. And in the weeks before trial, more voices have added to the background noise--voices attributing the shootings at Columbine to cultural influences, voices pointing out that not much distance separates Columbine from Boulder. But Hit Man didn't pull the trigger.

Some people would argue that in taking the life of another after premeditation, you act as God--judging and issuing a death sentence. But it is the employer, the man who pays for the service, whatever his reason might be, who acts as judge. The hit man is merely the executioner, an enforcer who carries out the sentence.

Free speech could wind up paying the price.

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