Should Readers Boycott O.J. Simpson's Book "If I Did It," When the Proceeds Are Going Directly to the Family of Victim Ron Goldman?
|By JULIE HILDEN|
|Friday, Sep. 07, 2007|
After a heated debate about the propriety of its publication, O.J. Simpson's book If I Did It is finally slated to come out. Initially championed by publisher Judith Regan of ReganBooks, If I Did It is an account of the murders of O.J.'s wife Nicole Brown Simpson and bystander Ron Goldman, told from O.J.'s point of view.
While the book is framed as hypothetical, its selling point doubtless is not any talent O.J. Simpson may have for writing a fictional thriller, or for criminal investigation, but rather the implicit promise that the book is actually the story of "How O.J. Did It."
Regan's career suffered greatly as a result of her decision to take on the book, and controversy led publisher HarperCollins to drop it entirely. Interestingly, this was the case even though Goldman's family could have gone directly after the proceeds to satisfy part of a $38 million judgment a civil jury had awarded the family in their wrongful death suit against O.J, following his acquittal in criminal court.
Since then, the Goldmans have formally acquired the rights to the book, as a result of a bankruptcy court's order. They can assert the right to control not only the proceeds of the book, but the entire publication process - what the cover will look like and how the book is marketed. Reportedly the book will include not only Simpson's original manuscript but commentary upon it, and Publisher Beaufort Books says it will work to "publish this book well" and "honor the memory of the victims of this terrible crime…." The Goldmans say that part of the proceeds will go to their private foundation, in Ron Goldman's name, to aid the victims of violent crime.
This situation is bizarre and unusual: Usually rights to a book pass only upon the author's death, and into the custody of a trusted executor. Simpson's book, however, has literally fallen into the hands of his worst enemies.
Meanwhile, some still question the propriety of the book's publication. Recently, Nicole Brown Simpson's sister Denise Brown called upon readers to boycott the book, appalled that Nicole's children would now have to be exposed to a "step by step manual" regarding the means of their mother's murder.
In this column, I'll explain why, despite First Amendment issues, the rights to the book fell into the Goldmans' hands. In addition, I'll consider which side is right regarding the boycott issue.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with a boycott, from a First Amendment perspective; indeed, it can be seen as a powerful way to express oneself, and the messages sent by boycotts can be a tool to make sellers change their ways. Though authors have a right to write, none of us is obligated to read. Nevertheless, in considering whether to join a boycott, First Amendment ideas like that of "chilling" future speech may prove useful.
Given that "Son of Sam" Laws are Unconstitutional, How Could the Goldmans Get the Rights to O.J.'s Book?
When it comes to books, movies, and other First Amendment-protected works written by criminals about their crimes, courts have distinguished two types of laws that have the effect of shifting the proceeds from those works from the perpetrator to the victim.
On one hand, courts have struck down laws that directly shift profits from such works, and from these works alone, to crime victims. First, in 1992, the Supreme Court struck down New York's "Son of Sam" law in Simon & Schuster v. New York Crime Victims' Board. Then, in 2002, in Keenan v. Superior Court , the California Supreme Court struck down California's revised version of its own "Son of Sam" law, troubled by the law's encompassing even larger works that devoted significant space to the crime at issue. (I wrote about "Son of Sam" Laws in a previous column.)
On the other hand, courts have not held that book proceeds and the like are exempt from the collection efforts of a successful plaintiff in a wrongful death suit. This leaves the way open for exactly what has happened with If I Did It.
It also leaves the way open for the same kind of thing to happen in cases where the defendant is convicted, not acquitted. (Consider, for example, the Scott Peterson case, in which Lacey Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, sought to keep Scott's book profits in trust pending a verdict.) In such cases, a wrongful death verdict or high settlement should be virtually assured, and a large part of the value of the settlement may be the book deal. In a high-profile case, even if a jury convicts a defendant - indeed, perhaps especially if it does - the public will likely still be interested in hearing the defendant's own account of the crime.
Are courts right to distinguish these two scenarios, from a First Amendment perspective?
To begin, it's plain that, at minimum, "Son of Sam" laws constitute a worse kind of First Amendment violation than enforcements of civil judgments against the proceeds of speech, because "Son of Sam" laws are an example of the government's specifically targeting speech, and doing so based on its content. Nevertheless, enforcing a civil judgment against book proceeds is still a government action, authorized by a court, and still raises potential First Amendment issues, even if they're much weaker ones.
First Amendment doctrine emphasizes the need to protect against the harm of "chilling" speech: Enforcing civil judgments against crime-book proceeds will mean many such books simply won't be written at all. What convict, imprisoned for life or scheduled for death, will be generous enough to write a crime memoir whose proceeds will only go to satisfy an existing wrongful death judgment on behalf of the victims' relatives, who probably pushed for the harshest possible sentence for him?
Many readers may believe society would be better off without such books, in any case, but under the First Amendment, it's not the government's -- or the public's -- place to make such a judgment; the government's role is to let speech thrive and let the marketplace decide.
As noted above, Denise Brown is now asking the marketplace to do exactly that - by imploring book buyers to boycott If I Did It, despite the fact that all proceeds will go to the family of victim Ron Goldman and other crime victims' families. Should book buyers indeed choose to boycott the book, if they otherwise would have bought and read it?
Denise Brown's Call for a Boycott: Now That the Money-to-O.J. Issue Is Moot, Is There a Reason Not to Buy and Read If I Did It?
Before the bankruptcy court gave the Goldmans full control of If I Did It, there was always a chance that the book could somehow benefit O.J. Simpson. Marketing conceivably could have softened his public image slightly, implying that his "confession" ought to lead to forgiveness; Simpson might even conceivably have been sent on a posh book tour. Money from book proceeds might have been squirreled away somehow and hidden from the Goldmans. None of this will happen now, we can be certain. Is the book's publication still objectionable?
Denise Brown's specific reason for thinking so - that she wants to protect Nicole's children from a "step by step manual" of their mother's death - is not very convincing. The lengthy Simpson trial already offered something fairly close to a "step by step manual" of how the crime would have occurred. And, If I Did It itself has already been leaked onto the Internet. Most important of all, Nicole and O.J.'s children must know, if they have access to media at all, that their father is believed by virtually every observer - despite his claims to the contrary - to have confessed in If I Did It to killing their mother. Compared to that bombshell, any further damage to the children from the Goldmans' sale of the book seems minor.
What about other reasons for thinking that purchasing the book would be morally wrong? One could argue that book sales will provide an actual incentive for future celebrity-seekers to commit crimes. In our media-saturated age, and with the recent example of Virginia killer Cho Seung-Hui in mind, that is not idle speculation. The government, constrained by the First Amendment, cannot act upon such speculation, but a private book purchaser is free to do so. Yet a book purchaser with this concern in mind, might also take into account, on the other side of the balance, the reality that her money will now be going to help actual victims of past crimes. Some may give far greater weight to the objective of helping victims than to the objective of removing an incentive for the rare media-spurred killer such as Cho Seung-Hui.
One might also argue that there is a sort of invasion of privacy in recounting the specific circumstances of a person's violent death. The sale or circulation of photos of dead or dying celebrities - an issue I have discussed in a prior column - has thus been widely criticized. Profiting from a privacy violation may disturb us, no matter how worthy the cause the profits will benefit. Thankfully, we have not yet witnessed the nightmare scenario where a rapist offers for sale a book detailing the rapes he committed. But in that event - again, even if the money went to victims - the privacy concern would be at its height.
The advantage of a boycott is that it empowers individual buyers to decide for themselves whether to buy this book, shun it, or even actively protest against it. In this sense, and in this context, a boycott is ironically pro-free-speech, in that it opens the way for discussion of the controversy rather than mandating a single point of view through the silence that results when publication of a crime book is prevented.