'Son of Sam' Ruling

MOST people abhor the idea of criminals enriching themselves through the reenactment of their crimes in books, articles, movies, and TV programs. It seems doubly unfair when victims of those crimes remain uncompensated.Ostensibly out of concern for crime victims - but perhaps also out of moral outrage - the New York Legislature in 1977 passed a law requiring that accused or convicted criminals place all proceeds of writings or other artistic expressions related to their crimes into an escrow account for victims of those crimes. The law was popularly named after "Son of Sam," a serial killer for whose story publishers were reportedly willing to pay a large sum. Last week the Supreme Court struck down New York's Son of Sam law and, by implication, similar laws in 41 other states. The case was brought by the publisher Simon & Schuster against the law's application to payments made to a mobster for revelations that became the basis for a best-selling book and a popular movie. The justices said that the law violated the First Amendment by singling out proceeds of speech about crime for a special economic burden. As a matter of free-speech law, the case was rightly decided. Under the law's sweeping terms, it could chill not only forgettable works by low-lifes, but also writings by "lawbreakers" like Henry David Thoreau or, in our times, Martin Luther King Jr. Yet the decision could open the floodgates to a deluge of "true crime" trash. Some publishers and moviemakers are already anticipating bidding wars for the grisly stories behind some well-publicized crimes. May both producers and consumers show decency and restraint in throwing money to criminals. And states should still be able to find ways, without violating the First Amendment, to facilitate the transfer of assets from criminals to their victims. This should be a high priority for the criminal-justice system.

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