Bomb-Building Books Come under Fire
Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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. …