As more and more potentially dangerous information on bombmaking and terrorism spreads through books and the Internet, many fear that all would-be criminals need to carry out their destructive plans is a library card.
This week, a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., is considering a major free-speech case that seeks to hold publishers of books instructing how to build bombs, commit murder, or build devices of mass destruction liable when someone using their information causes death or destruction. If upheld, the case may unleash a flood of lawsuits against publishers of paramilitary-style manuals, such as the do-it-yourself explosives book allegedly used by Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh.
Such information has become so widespread in libraries and from mail-order publishers that a recent Justice Department report concludes: "Anyone interested in manufacturing a bomb, dangerous weapon, or weapon of mass destruction can easily obtain detailed instructions for fabricating and using such a device."
The hearing, set for tomorrow, involves a how-to guide on becoming a professional assassin. The book, "Hit Man," was used as a blueprint for a triple slaying in Maryland in 1993.
Court to Decide if Books that Advocate Murder Are Protected by First Amendment
Family members of the murder victims sued the publisher of the book, Paladin Press of Boulder, Colo. The case was thrown out of court by a federal judge who ruled that the publisher was protected by the First Amendment.
The case is being closely watched by free-speech experts who are concerned that if the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals overturns the judge's ruling and reinstates the suit, it may trigger a barrage of similar lawsuits, including suits filed by family members who lost relatives in the Oklahoma City bombing.
In addition to "Hit Man," Paladin Press also publishes and distributes "Homemade C-4, A Recipe For Survival," the book prosecutors say Mr. McVeigh used to build the Oklahoma City bomb. C-4 is a military explosive.
"If the 'Hit Man' manual suit is upheld then brace yourself for a tidal wave of litigation," says Paul McMasters, First Amendment Ombudsman at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va.
An official at Paladin Press said company owner Peder Lund was out of town and could not be reached for comment. She said no one else at the company could comment on the issue.
Federal law in this area is governed by a 1969 US Supreme Court precedent. The case, Brandenberg v. Ohio, says in part that unless the speech or information in question is intended to incite immediate lawless action by a listener or reader, the speech or information is entitled to the protection of the First Amendment.
In other words, the publisher or speaker must intend and know that the murder or bombmaking instructions will be used immediately by would-be murderers or bombers.
In the case of the book "Hit Man," the would-be assassin, James Perry, purchased the book more than a year before the murders. During the actual killings, he followed at least 18 specific suggestions in the text as he methodically shot to death Mildred Horn, her eight-year-old quadriplegic son, and the boy's nurse. Horn's estranged husband, Lawrence, hired Perry for the job so he could collect on a life insurance policy. Both men were arrested and convicted. Horn is serving a life prison term. Perry is awaiting a death sentence.
In his decision to throw out the case against Paladin, US District Judge Alexander Williams ruled that the civil suit should not go to trial because the book "Hit Man" merely advocates or teaches murder, rather than inciting or encouraging it. "Nothing in the book says 'Go out and commit murder now!' " the judge writes. "Instead, the book seems to say, in so many words, 'if you want to be a hit man this is what you need to do.' " He adds, "This is advocacy, not incitement."
The judge concludes: "While the book has proven to contain information which, when it makes its way into the wrong hands, can be fatal, First Amendment protection is not eliminated simply because publication of an idea creates a potential hazard."
Attorneys for the victims' families disagree.
They cite a pre-trial stipulation of facts in the case in which Paladin Press admitted that company officials "intended and had knowledge that their publications would be used ... by criminals and would-be criminals to plan and execute the crime of murder for hire, in the manner set forth in the publications."
Thomas L. Heeney, attorney for the family of the dead nurse, says no one wants to ban the book "Hit Man." But family members feel the company that profited from its sale should compensate those hurt by its product.
He says the company sold "Hit Man" knowing that it would find its way into the hands of criminals who would use it to attempt to get away with murder. "That is a horrifying notion for which we say there should be no shield, no immunity for compensation for a damage claim on behalf of the murdered victims," Mr. Heeney says.
In the Oklahoma City case there are two books that might spark potential lawsuits, analysts say. In addition to Paladin's "Homemade C-4," prosecutors say, McVeigh relied on and was inspired by a novel called "The Turner Diaries." The book, written by a white supremacist living in West Virginia, includes a detailed description of how to build and detonate a bomb similar to the one that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center says the "Turner Diaries" is a kind of Bible to radical militia groups. But he says a suit against that book would likely fail because it would be difficult to prove the author intended to cause any specific bombing. More than 200,000 copies of the book have been sold.
Free-speech advocates warn that if lawsuits are permitted against publishers of such books, then it will be impossible to draw the line to prevent a suit against any book or motion picture.
Mr. McMasters says criminals themselves must be held responsible for their actions - not a book they may have read or a movie they may have seen.
"Instead of going after words on paper, let's punish criminals for what they do, not what they think," he says.