WASHINGTON -- In a ruling casting doubt on the validity of laws in 42 states, the Supreme Court yesterday struck down a New York law preventing criminals from profiting from tales of their misdeeds.
Ruling 8 to 0, the court said New York's so-called Son of Sam lw, which requires proceeds from books or other works detailing crimes to be turned over to a victims' fund, violates the Constitution's free-speech guarantees.
The court's ruling in the case, Simon & Schuster Inc. v. New York State Crime Victims Board, is one of several expected during the 1991-92 term to more clearly delineate the scope of state autonomy.
Noting that "the government's ability to impose content-based burdens on speech raises the specter that the government may effectively drive certain ideas of view-points from the marketplace," the court, in an opinion delivered by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, said the Constitution's First Amendment "places this sort of discrimination beyond the power of government."
The court said a state may impose restrictions on speech only if they can show them "necessary to serve a compelling state interest," and then only if "narrowly drawn to achieve that end."
The court conceded states have "a compelling interest" in making sure victims are compensated and "an undisputed compelling interest in ensuring criminals do not profit from their crimes."
But the court said states do not have any more interest in compesating victims from the proceeds of books or movies about crimes than from any of the criminal's other assets.
The court also said that because the law allowed the state to take the income of any author who admits in his books to having committed a crime -- even if he was never accused or convicted -- the law could have encompassed such works as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Thoreau's On Civil Disobedience, and The Confessions of St. Augustine, an outcome demonstrating the law is not "narrowly tailored to achieve the state's objective."
The court said its ruling was confined to the New York law and did not speculate on the validity of other state laws. That prompted Justice Harry A. Blackmun to write in a separate opinion that the states "deserve from this court all the guidance it can render in this very sensitive area."
Justice Anthony Kennedy also concurred in the court's judgment, but said laws abidging free expression are suspect even if they advance a state interest. Justice Clarence Thomas took no part in the case.
The New York law was challenged by Simon & Schuster, the publishing house that had printed Wiseguys, by Nicholas Pileggi, the memoirs of Henry Hill, a convicted Mafia figure. His tail was later made into the critically acclaimed movie Goodfellas, starring Robert De Niro and directed by Martin Scorcese.
The law was enacted in 1977 amid a public outcry over a book written by serial killer David Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam. Ironically, the law was not used against Mr. Berkowitz, but was later used against R. Foster Winans, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who was convicted of insider trading.