The Hit Man Case May Limit Free Speech Rights

November 1998
by Godfrey Harris

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All publishers should note the details of a case sent back for trial by the Supreme Court earlier this year. The facts in this case were not in dispute. Mildred Horn, a flight attendant, was shot in her Silver Spring, Maryland home on March 3, 1993, along with her disabled son, Trevor, and his all-night nurse, Janice Saunders. Police found the trigger man, James Perry of Detroit, and were able to link him through a series of phone calls to Mildred’s ex-husband, an unemployed sound engineer living in Hollywood, California. With his former wife and son dead, Lawrence Horn stood to inherit a $2 million malpractice settlement from a local hospital who had treated Trevor. For involvement in the murders, Perry was sentenced to death and Horn was given life in prison.

Howard Siegel, the malpractice attorney who had won the settlement on behalf of Trevor, learned that Perry had carefully followed the instructions in a book in order to commit the murders. Siegel concluded that the publisher was also guilty of aiding and abetting the crime and filed suit on behalf of Mildred Horn’s sisters. The book, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, is from Paladin Press, a mail order firm specializing in martial arts books. This is no minor title. Paladin has reportedly sold 13,000 copies of the 130-page book.

Peter Lund, owner of Paladin, won a dismissal of the Federal case and claimed he was protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Siegel appealed. In the Appellate Court, Lund said his book resembled a “comic book rather than a technical manual.” However the US Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, agreed with Siegel, calling Hit Man a “step-by-step… training book for assassins.”

Lund then took the matter to the US Supreme Court, supported this time by a number of First Amendment advocacy groups as well as such media organizations as ABC, NBC, and the Newspaper Association of America. They argued that if Paladin were found liable for Perry’s actions, then films, crime books, mystery novels, scientific journals, and military manuals could be subjected to lawsuits on the basis of the Hit Man case. Siegel said these fears were exaggerated since Perry did not do a copycat killing from a news story or crime novel, but murdered on the basis of a specific instruction manual.

The Supreme Court, in refusing to take any action on the appeal, has effectively sent the case back down for trial. If a jury hears the case, the publisher will in effect stand trial because of crimes committed by a reader. If the case is settled before trial, as is now expected, all publishers will need to take extra care in what their “how to” books recommend and how this advice might be used by a reader. In short, whatever the outcome of the Hit Man case, the First Amendment apparently no longer provides the kind of blanket protection for publishers that has previously been assumed.

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