School Climate & Safety

High Court Declines Kentucky Case Blaming School Violence on Media

By Mark Walsh — January 29, 2003 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear an appeal from parents who had sought to hold media companies partly responsible for the 1997 school shooting spree in West Paducah, Ky., that killed three students.

It was the end of the line for a novel attempt to hold the producers of violent movies, video games, and Internet sites liable for school violence.

The families of victims Jessica James, Kayce Steger, and Nicole M. Hadley had sued 21 media companies, alleging that the violent content of their entertainment had motivated Michael Carneal, then a 14-year-old student at Heath High School, to go on the rampage that left the three girls dead and five other students wounded. Mr. Carneal pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years.

In the lawsuit, the parents contended that Mr. Carneal had been desensitized to violence by his frequent exposure to video games such as “Doom,” “Quake,” and “Redneck Rampage,” as well as by a violent sequence in the movie “The Basketball Diaries.” The defendants included AOL Time Warner Inc., Nintendo of America Inc., and Sega of America Inc.

Too Great a Leap

The parents lost in both federal district court in Paducah, Ky., and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati. Last August, a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled unanimously that it would have been impossible for the media defendants to predict that their violent games, movie, and Internet sites would incite a particular young person to violence.

“We find that it is simply too far a leap from shooting characters on a video screen (an activity undertaken by millions) to shooting people in a classroom (an activity undertaken by a handful, at most) for Carneal’s actions to have been reasonably foreseeable to the manufacturers of the media,” the appellate court said in upholding that dismissal of the lawsuit.

The Supreme Court declined without comment on Jan. 21 to hear the parents’ appeal in James v. Meow Media Inc. (Case No. 02-740).

The Kentucky shootings presaged the more extensive 1999 violence at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., in which two student gunmen killed 12 students and one teacher before killing themselves. Among the tangle of mostly unsuccessful lawsuits against school employees, local police, gun manufacturers, and others in the Columbine case was a suit against the producers of violent video games and “The Basketball Diaries” movie. A federal district judge in Denver dismissed the media suit last March.

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