Volume 17, Number 03, Fall 1999

Victor Milán's Prometheus Award Presentation

I've been asked to say a few words to you before reading the nominees and announcing the award. What I'd like to say is that right now we're in a war, and if you believe in individualism or individual liberty or that you have any rights which the state is obliged to respect, you're the objects of that war.

Our current administration has launched unprecedented attacks on the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and the right of freedom of expression has certainly not been overlooked in the assault. There are events in train right now which could functionally put an end to freedom of expression in this country, because our rulers found a way to elude the restrictions placed upon governmental action in the Bill of Rights by not using the criminal justice system but rather relying on the civil justice system.

They've been testing it out in the suits against the tobacco industry and now against the firearms industry. And whatever you may think of those industries—that's certainly your own affair—but they've been test cases to see if the government could elude the Constitution by means of lawsuits. There are lawsuits making their way through the courts now that pertain to the First Amendment. The most notorious perhaps is the Hitman lawsuit against Paladin Press, a lawsuit on which even noted civil libertarian—to the extent of falling afoul of his fellow leftists on occasion—Nat Hentoff was able to align himself with the forces of political correctness because he claimed the book told people how to commit crimes and therefore was exempt from protection. But the Hitman lawsuit and a variety of other lawsuits, including against filmmaker Oliver Stone and a raft of other suits against others likewise in the wake of the Columbine massacre, the thrust of these amount to, if you can plausibly say—and plausible in the eyes of the law is pretty broadly defined, at least in our tort law—if you can plausibly saw that a work inspired someone to commit a criminal act, say a mass murder, that the survivors of his victims have a claim against the writer, the director, even the artist, it's really pretty open ended and unlimited.

I think we can all imagine circumstances in which one of these lone or perhaps lone two nuts kills a number of people and is found in possession of a book by Neil Schulman, Neil Smith, Victor Koman, or one of our award winners for this year, and the attorney representing the survivors of one or another of the victims says, well, this person was clearly an unstable personality, and his instability was facilitated and increased by the antigovemment sentiment expressed in this work of fiction. He was taught that the system was repressive and that violence was justified. So this outbreak of violence is a direct result of this work of art. That's what's being argued essentially in the Hitman case and essentially in the Stone case and essentially in a raft of others.

And with the government footing some of the bills for these lawsuits, as the federal government did in the case of the tobacco suit, sooner or later they'll find a jury which will agree that liability inheres in the creator. And one of the things you have to keep in mind is even a successful defense of a lawsuit, like a successful defense of a criminal prosecution, is terrifically expensive, so that once a jury finds in favor of the plaintiffs in one of these cases it's going to be extremely difficult to find a publisher, say, for anything more controversial than My Little Pony. And if you decide to self-publish your work you're exposing yourself to the whole of the liability.

I'm not telling you these things merely to depress you. I'm telling you so that you should be aware. I think it's important that people know what the stakes are. And this is only a small area; this is one particular and relevant component of the assault on our liberties. And so what I'd like to submit is that the nominees for the Prometheus Award this year are all freedom fighters in a way perhaps which even they don't fully understand; that the libertarian sentiments expressed even by those who aren't professed libertarians nonetheless are striking substantial and courageous blows for freedom which may someday come to cost them. I hope that's not the case; I hope that we can go on expressing ourselves, seditiously or otherwise. But I'm very much afraid that that is not to be.

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