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Batman studio likely not liable in Colorado theater shootings

Courts historically have protected violent video games and films on First Amendment grounds

If courtroom precedent is any indication, the studio behind “The Dark Knight Rises” likely won’t be held liable for last week’s tragic Colorado theater shootings.

The alleged shooter, James Holmes, was at least partially inspired by one of the franchise’s signature villains, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters. "He had his hair painted red, he said he was The Joker, obviously the enemy of Batman," Kelly said, according to Reuters.

In the past, supposed links between media violence and real-life crime sprees have led to litigation. Following the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, for instance, the victims’ families sued 25 entertainment companies, claiming that violent video games and films had contributed to the massacre. And the 1994 film “Natural Born Killers” spawned several lawsuits, including one from Patsy Ann Byers, who alleged that the movie had inspired two teenagers to embark on a shooting spree that left her paralyzed.

Courts ultimately dismissed both lawsuits, however, ruling that the makers of violent games and movies could not have anticipated that their products would lead to actual violence. Also at issue are First Amendment rights: In 2011, the Supreme Court struck down a California ban on selling violent video games to minors, finding that it violated game manufacturers’ protected free speech.

For such lawsuits to be successful, the link between fictional and actual violence generally has to be more explicit. In one infamous case, publisher Paladin Press was sued over the book “Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors,” which was advertised as a “how-to” guide for contract killers. When a hit man reportedly used the book to commit a 1993 triple homicide, the victims’ families filed suit.

The 4th Circuit ruled 3-0 that “Hit Man” was not protected free speech, as its “only instructional communicative ‘value’ is the indisputably illegitimate one of training persons how to murder and to engage in the business of murder for hire.” Although Paladin was confident of an eventual courtroom victory, its insurance company settled the case out of court.

In the case of “The Dark Knight Rises,” though, it will be harder to prove that its distributor, Warner Brothers Studios, could have foreseen that any violence would result from the film. The studio, which cancelled the film’s Paris premiere after the shootings, released a statement saying it was “deeply saddened” by the incident.

Read more analysis at Reuters.

For more InsideCounsel coverage of violent video games, read:

Violent video games at the Supreme Court

Video game ban runs afoul of First Amendment

Video game makers settle FTC charges

Grand Theft Auto suit goes forward

Alanna Byrne

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