by J.D. Tuccille
March 8, 1997

This Hit: No. 1, With a Bullet

When people start banging the drums of censorship, itís rarely for the sheer joy of warming their hands over crackling copies of Ulysses or smoldering prints of Mapplethorpe photos. No, attacks on speech often find their roots in legitimate grievances. And, as legitimate grievances go, the surviving members of the Horn family have a doozy.

It seems that the patriarch of the family, Lawrence Horn, had his eyes on a large malpractice settlement won for his paralyzed eight-year-old son. Rather than sully his own hands with family blood, Horn hired a flunky to do the job for him ó a thug named James Perry.

Read closely, folks, cuz hereís where it gets interesting. Ya see, in the self-improvement-crazed America of the Ď90s, James Perry decided that a correspondence course might be just the ticket for honing his professional skills. He sent away to Paladin Press for the book Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, and followed its step-by-step instructions for ... well ... getting away with murder. He probably wants his money back.

Lawrence Horn is now enjoying life-time residence in the Maryland prison system, while James Perry is awaiting the application of whatever means the state of Maryland currently uses for drawing its hospitality to an abrupt and permanent close. Sounds fair, right? Itís about as much justice as can be applied in the wake of an irreversible crime.

Except that the surviving Horns want more payback. In search of somebody to blame for the crime, they brought suit against the publisher of Mr. Perryís how-to-guide. This is where they stepped over the line from grieving relatives to threats to freedom.

Of course, thereís no way to not feel sympathy for the Horns. They carry on their lives in the wake of a brutal, cold-blooded murder committed within the family. But in reaching past the actuals criminals to the source of instructional information that James Perry used to plan his crime, they seek to suppress knowledge, and to attack a business that had no role in the crime and no intention that such a crime should ever occur.

Now, Hit Man is one of a series of tough-guy, military-, survival-, and weapons-oriented books offered by the company. Despite the gruesome subject matter, the books can be great fun (I own several of their publications, myself), and helpful in perfectly commendable ways to writers, military buffs, and people interested in self-defense. If the occasional real hit man takes a particular book too seriously, Paladin Press bears no more responsibility for the crime than did the publishers of the Encyclopedia Britannica for the scorch marks in my parentsí home that were produced with the assistance of an entry on gunpowder recipes. The Horns have no obligation to feel well-disposed towards the publisher and author of Hit Man, but Paladin Press didnít conspire to kill little Trevor Horn or anybody else.

And thatís the test. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the patron saint of free speech, once said:

We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

This view was largely enshrined in the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio which provided the benchmark by which such matters are now judged. If you donít incite an imminent crime, you canít be penalized for voicing your mind.

And the federal judge in the case agreed. Judge Alexander Williams issued a summary judgment against the Horns. The Horns are appealing, but itís highly unlikely that their case will reverse decisions founded in calls to revolution.

So why am I carrying on about a case thatís been effectively settled?

In a world where U.S. senators can casually discuss strategies for driving fiery political speech from the Internet lest it inspire another Oklahoma City-style bombing, the protection afforded to Paladin Press is protection for all of us. The First Amendment isnít intended just to shield Sunday-morning pundits and network news anchors ó those pablum-spewing talking heads are unlikely to inspire the wrath of the state anytime soon. The First Amendment was specifically designed for firebrands and rebels. The intended beneficiaries of protected speech are those who are least likely to inspire our sympathy ó a point lost even to the 60 Minutes crew when they covered this case.

Hit Man may be an ďunsavoryĒ book in the eyes of many, but it provides a great reminder that the objects of our sympathy are sometimes the greatest threat to our liberty.

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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Copyright (c) 1997 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and Iíll use your polished skull as a beer mug.