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Court strikes down 'Son of Sam' bill

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    NMU         MASSACHUSETTS         Prior Restraints         Mar 21, 2002    

Court strikes down ‘Son of Sam’ bill

  • Massachusetts’ highest court reviewed a proposed bill designed to divert profits from convicted criminals who make money on books and movies, determining that the measure would restrict free speech rights.

A second state supreme court last week has found that a proposed bill making it illegal for individuals to profit from their crimes violates the First Amendment.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on March 14 said a proposed “Son of Sam” law would restrict the free speech rights of criminals. The court’s decision follows one by the California Supreme Court last month that struck down a law that prevented one of the kidnappers of Frank Sinatra Jr. from making a movie about the crime.

New York became the first state to enact such a law in 1977 after serial killer David Berkowitz, better known as the “Son of Sam,” received a number of high-price offers for the rights to his story. But the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional in 1991.

The Massachusetts decision came after the Massachusetts Senate asked the Supreme Judicial Court to review its “Crime Victim Compensation” bill after questions were raised about its constitutionality. The bill would have diverted profits criminals made from their crimes to an escrow account reserved for the victims. The court ruled that it restricted free speech rights.

“With respect to all types of criminal defendants, the law . . . would impose financial burdens and uncertainties that would, in their practical effect, operate to chill a wide range of expression,” the court wrote.

The court also noted that there were other ways to prevent criminals from reaping financial benefits from their crimes such as specific probation requirements designed to limit their incomes.

Sean Kealy, spokesman for bill sponsor state Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), said the legislation would be reevaluated and constructed in a less broad and far-reaching manner.

“The question is how we’re going to do it,” Kealy said. “It’s a pretty difficult decision to get around.”

(Senate No. 1939, Crime Victim Compensation Bill) KC

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