BOSTON — It's one of the toughest questions facing America: What would lead a teen-ager to go on a killing spree?
As people search for reasons behind the massacre last week in Littleton, Colo., and earlier US school shootings, many are looking hard, once again, at an entertainment industry that pumps out violent images for teen consumption.
But the concern has now moved beyond finger pointing. Parents of children slain in school shootings are suing a wide array of media companies, and free-speech protections notwithstanding, experts predict they will increasingly be the targets of lawsuits.
"As a result of the shootings, I anticipate that there will be increasing efforts to use the courts ... as a constraint against entertainment and information media," says Robert O'Neil, a law professor who heads the Thomas Jefferson Center for Protection of Free Expression at the University of Virginia.
Some say that blaming the movies for real-life violence is a facile attempt to explain the inexplicable. But in the face of withering criticism, and a wider threat of lawsuits, the industry itself is beginning to examine its output more carefully, some Hollywood insiders say.
In the latest slap at the entertainment industry, the parents of three girls killed in the 1997 Paducah, Ky., school shooting last week filed a $130 million lawsuit against 25 media companies. They charge that because the gunman, high-school freshman Michael Carneal, played violent computer and video games, visited Internet pornography sites, and saw violent movies such as "The Basketball Diaries," he was influenced enough to commit murder.
"The media's depiction of violence as a means of resolving conflict and a national culture which tends to glorify violence further condoned his thinking," says Diane Schetky, a psychiatrist who evaluated Michael for mental fitness to stand trial. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years without the possibility of parole.
Among the companies charged are Time Warner, Nintendo, Sony, Atari, New Line Cinema, and Polygram Film Entertainment. None would comment on the lawsuit.
Citing violent entertainment as a contributing factor in youth violence is hardly new. Other lawsuits have tried to make the case but failed, usually because of First Amendment protections for free speech.
The difference now is that courts and juries could find themselves wrestling with unprecedented legal issues, especially in the areas of video games and Internet content.
Movie studios, for their part, also argue that the movie rating system, imperfect as it may be, takes the guesswork out of film choices for parents. Parent responsibility, free-speech advocates add, is the bottom line.
But sociologists insist something isn't working in society, and it's not just easy access to weapons or too many divorces. Behavioral studies by universities and nonprofit organizations over the past 30 years have to varying degrees established connections between violent entertainment and negative youth behavior.
"What researchers have documented is that prolonged consumption of this kind of stuff cultivates scripts in people's heads, and they learn to rely on this in ... thinking about how to solve problems," says Susan Douglas, a University of Michigan communications studies teacher.
Critics charge that violent video games, such as Doom and Quake, teach children how to kill. "We are charging a recklessness in distributing products," says Jack Thompson, co-counsel for the Paducah parents.
He asserts that by repeatedly playing point-and-shoot video games, Michael became a skilled marksman. "This is so far beyond what anyone could say is free speech," Mr. Thompson adds. "It's an interactive game that is a training device to kill."
"When kids play point-and-shoot video games, and hold a weapon in their hands, they are being taught how to murder," agrees Lt. Col. David Grossman, author of a recent book that explains how soldiers become desensitized and learn to kill. "Who will defend the rights of children to practice killing humans at the local arcade?"
Some movie-industry insiders say major studios are already responding to the criticisms. "There is a growing self-censorship and sensitivity that is happening now, before films get released by studios," says Charles Lyons, author of "The New Censors: Movies and the Culture Wars," and an associate for Mud Pony Productions at Walt Disney Studios. "It does seem to be a little more conservative than it was five years ago."
A Louisiana lawsuit does take aim at a specific movie: "Natural Born Killers." This violent 1994 satire features a couple on a killing spree. A young couple who had seen the movie many times committed similar murders while on acid. The case was dismissed, has been reinstated, and is now before the US Supreme Court.
But it faces a formidable task that has stymied other cases. It must meet the Supreme Court's First Amendment exception. That is, there must be proof that director Oliver Stone wanted his movie to lead to "imminent lawless action." Mr. Stone would have to acknowledge this on the stand.
The problem for many who care deeply about about First Amendment rights but abhor explicit violence is how to reconcile both concerns. "As a free-speech person, I don't want my movie experience to be funneled through somebody else's opinion," says Mr. Lyons. "And if a group is making choices for others, that is a very antidemocratic way."