The Strange Way Goodfellas Helped Criminals Everywhere
You might have heard of Son of Sam laws, which say that criminals can’t benefit financially from publicizing their crimes. More specifically, they say that if a criminal writes a book or a movie that expresses their feelings about their crimes, all profits go to the state, to be distributed to the crime’s victims.
The laws became so famous that they’re common knowledge now. And yet the original law (and equivalent laws, by extension) was found unconstitutional over 30 years ago, and it was thanks to Wiseguy, the book that was later adapted into Goodfellas.
The original Son of Sam law was New York Executive Law section 632-a. New York passed it in 1977 the very day after they arrested serial killer David Berkowitz, in anticipation of his selling his story (which is kind of funny because he said he had no plans to, and we have no proof that he was ever going to). More than 40 other states then passed similar laws.
In 1985, Simon & Schuster published Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, about ex-mobster Henry Hill. The following year, New York demanded they retrieve all money they’d paid Hill and turn it over, and Simon & Schuster sued all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1991, the court ruled unanimously that the Son of Sam law violated the First Amendment.
To explain their reasoning, we’d have to delve deep into standards and precedent, more deeply than any layperson can be expected to understand. But in summary: Yes, the criminal hurt their victims, and they’re punished for that, but they still have the right to their own thoughts and feelings and the right to express those. Victims may sue for a share in book profits, and courts can decide that on a case-by-case basis, but a blanket law could chill criminals from ever speaking out, and that’s bad. Any law limiting speech must be as narrow as possible.
As written, the law could have been used to seize all proceeds from, say, Martin Luther King writing a book. If the law prevented him from ever writing that book, that would be bad, of course. Many fans of serial killer coverage would say that depriving them of juicy psychopath details would be an even greater loss.
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