Washington 451

Perhaps. But under the Clinton administration, it's as American as apple pie. Last August, Clinton set the precedent for the methamphetamine act by signing a law (also Feinstein's handiwork) making it a felony to disseminate instructions for making bombs, destructive devices, or weapons of mass destruction. And while that move came in response to the Oklahoma City bombing, its effects are still being felt. Paladin Press no longer publishes any material involving explosives recipes, and Loompanics doesn't sell books exclusively about explosives. On the Internet, where bomb-making instructions were once abundant, there is now a void.

If this drug bill passes, the most immediate and concrete impact will be on the two dozen or so sites which currently sell drug paraphernalia, from bongs to paper—and the countless places that link to them. These sites will become illegal, even though brick and mortar head shops will still be able to operate within the letter of the law.

The deeper question, of course, is whether S.R. 486 violates the First Amendment. Representative Chris Cannon, the House sponsor, is unconcerned. "We have worked a lot with the attorneys at the Department of Justice; we have been pretty thorough there," he says, adding, "We don't even expect a court challenge."

illustration by Limbert Fabian

That may come as news to the ACLU, but Cannon's confidence is based on strange but safe legal ground, territory already strewn with the bones of another Paladin project: Hit Man, a murder how-to book. After a killer-for-hire allegedly acted on the book's step-by-step instructions, the victims' families sued Paladin. The courts allowed the lawsuit to go forward, and Paladin settled for a reported $5 million. The ruling that the lawsuit could proceed is being cited by the Louisiana Court of Appeals in the legal action against Oliver Stone over Natural Born Killers, which allegedly incited two 18-year-olds to go on a violent crime spree. And it sets a precedent for holding publishers accountable that could make this bill legit in the eyes of the courts.

From the ACLU's perspective, Johnson thinks that "in theory" prosecutors would have a hard time proving "intent." In a case, they would have to prove that a publisher knew beforehand that some reader would find in a book the motivation for a crime. Nevertheless, the results of the Hit Man case are troubling, he says, and the future of this area of law is still undetermined.

If the Meth Act becomes law, Johnson says the ACLU's likely course of action will not be to challenge the bill immediately, but rather to save its attack until someone is prosecuted, and then defend that person. Any volunteers?

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