Legal Principle at Issue
Whether a New York statute that required that an accused or convicted criminal's income from speech describing his crime be deposited in an escrow account for possible distribution to the criminal's victims or other creditors violated the First Amendment.
Reversed. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.
In 1977, New York passed legislation commonly known as the "Son of Sam" law, which required any entity contracting with an accused or convicted criminal for the production of a work describing the crime to turn over to the state's Crime Victims Board any income earned under that contract. The Board then made payments from that fund for legal and literary representation, compensation to victims, and payments to other creditors. In 1986, the Board became aware of a contract between publisher Simon & Schuster and organized crime figure Henry Hill for a book entitled Wiseguy. After the Board sought to enforce the Son of Sam law against Simon & Schuster, the publisher brought suit seeking a ruling that the legislation violated the First Amendment. The trial court and Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the statute.
A statute is presumed to violate the First Amendment if it imposes a financial burden on speakers because of the content of their speech. Leathers v. Medlock, 499 U.S. 439 (1991). Such a statute can be upheld only if it is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. Arkansas Writers' Project, Inc. v. Ragland, 481 U.S. 221 (1987).
Importance of Case
The federal government and many states have enacted legislation similar to the Son of Sam statute. The Court made it clear, however, that it was not ruling upon the constitutionality of these laws. While the Court agreed that New York has a compelling interest in compensating victims from the fruits of the crime, it held that the statute was unconstitutionally overbroad because it applied to speech that only mentioned a crime, regardless of how incidental the crime was to the primary subject of the speech. The Court pointed to a number of books, including The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, that would have been snared by the Son of Sam legislation had it existed when those books were published. In the Court's view, these books demonstrated that the statute's reach was unconstitutionally overbroad because it applied to a wide range of literature from authors who did not need to compensate their "victims."