Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Natural Born Killers

The Press Weighs In

While the drama over the fate of Sarah and Ben was fading into the shadows, the larger fight over the First Amendment continued to rage. Following the March 1996 filing of the lawsuit against Stone and the others, the case took more than six years to finally settle, after numerous hearings and appeals. However, the media attention given to the case continued unabated.

Woody Harrelson
Woody Harrelson

In an op-ed piece in the Times-Picayune on Sunday, July 7, 1996, acerbic columnist James Gill wrote that Woody Harrelson had been rejected by Grisham for a role in A Time to Kill, based on a Grisham novel, because of the role Harrelson played in Natural Born Killers. Gill, however, was quick to point out that the movie made from Grisham's book might inspire some enraged parent somewhere to "go out and blow away some rapist, regardless of who is cast in it (the role). If Grisham ever does get sued he may change his mind about equating literature with breast implants."

Calling Sarah and Ben "a couple of dopeheads," Gill said, "Natural Born Killers didn't make them depraved and they would have come to no good, regardless. But it is arguable that repeated viewings could push a susceptible nut over the edge. It would certainly behoove Stone to display a little concern over the effects of his work or even to exercise some voluntary restraint. But we can't abridge the First Amendment rights of artists just because they are jerks."

Clancy DuBos, a New Orleans attorney, respected political observer, and co-owner of Gambit Weekly, noted in a column on June 1, 1998, that "recent cases show that courts may be coming around to the Byers' point of view with regard to 'artistic' expressions." However, he went on to conclude, "Indeed, it's hard to argue that it's time to put violence on trial. The question is, in condemning the message, do we also condemn the messenger?"

Other media observers were equally brutal in their assessment of the consequences, should the final judgment go against Stone and his co-defendants. Bill Walsh, a media specialist from Billerica, Massachusetts, while calling Natural Born Killers "too gory and violent," nonetheless raised some pertinent related questions. "Can you sue Columbia Pictures if a kid clunks his brother over the head with a hammer after watching The Three Stooges? Can you sue Riverside Press if you kill someone after reading Shakespeare's Macbeth?"

In a lengthy feature in the May 5, 1999, Village Voice entitled "The Movies Made Me Do It," Michael Atkinson laid out a lengthy list of movies that inspired violent acts dating back to Birth of a Nation. He even cited the cable TV animated show, Beavis and Butt-head, as being blamed for a number of violent incidents committed against children and adolescents by other children and adolescents.

Beavis and Butt-head
Beavis and Butt-head

However, Atkinson acknowledged that Natural Born Killers did indeed factor into a number of murders and other violent crimes committed by individuals who watched the movie. He wrote, "Movies are movies, homicidal nuts are homicidal nuts, and the crimes would occur with or without a movie's sensationalized prodding. So the wisdom goes.  But ... could it be that visual media aren't merely a harmless, ephemeral diversion from reality, but a powerful factor in that reality bearing consequences we haven't foreseen?"


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