The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review the constitutionality of the so-called “Son of Sam” law, which bars criminals from turning a quick buck by selling rights to their life story.
The First Amendment case has been brought by Simon & Schuster and is backed by the Assn. of American Publishers and the Motion Picture Assn. of America. They claim the law, enacted by New York State in 1977 after the “Son of Sam” slayings, has limited book and film projects from being launched.
The New York law bars accused or convicted criminals from receiving immediate profits from publishers or film and tv producers for reenacting or retelling the crime. The money paid to criminals is held in escrow for five years, and if the criminal’s victim or victims do not claim the coin, it is then forwarded to the convict. More than 30 states have passed legislation similar to the New York law.
The case that will be argued before the high court this fall involves the Simon & Schuster book “Wiseguy,” which was adapted into the Martin Scorsese film “Goodfellas.” “Wiseguy” author Nicholas Pileggi based his book on the life of Mafia criminal Henry Hill, and Simon & Schuster agreed to pay Hill some $96,000 for rights to the story and another $28,000 in royalties.
Simon & Schuster filed its First Amendment suit after a New York crime victims agency essentially fined the book publisher the $96,000 it had paid to Hill. The money was placed in escrow to compensate victims of Hill’s crimes, none of whom has yet come forward.
Simon & Shuster lost its case in New York Federal Court and also was shot down on appeal in a 2-1 decision by the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York.
The MPAA filed a brief in support of the Simon & Schuster suit. In the brief, the MPAA said: “In the wake of the most recent presidential election, if a filmmaker decides to film the [ convicted Massachusetts rapist] Willie Horton story and the filmmaker determines that Willie Horton is a crucial source and Horton demands payment before he will cooperate, should the government be allowed to erect an impediment to the filmmakers’ decision to use Horton? Son of Sam laws pose just such an impediment.”