Thursday, April 23, 2009

Crime, Convicts & Free Speech

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
From Across the Pond

April 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT

Convicted killer Colin Thatcher has written a memoir, and Saskatchewan's government is, understandably, unhappy that the former provincial cabinet minister might make money from his horrifying crime. But the government should be wary of drafting a law to seize the profits of criminals who tell, or sell, their stories. Suppress a Colin Thatcher today, and tomorrow the autobiography of a Malcolm X, or the plea for a new trial from a Rubin Carter, or the ruminations of a white-collar criminal such as Conrad Black, or the insider accounts of a war criminal such as Albert Speer, might be stifled. The U.S. Supreme Court has wondered if Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience or the Confessions of Saint Augustine would have been written if the law had allowed payments to be seized from them.

The most repugnant scenario would be to let a serial child killer such as Clifford Olson, or a major al-Qaeda terrorist, make money from sharing his story. Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Alberta have laws enabling the government to seize the profits of such books or recollections. But it is risky, in several ways, to use the worst-case scenarios to justify suppressing an individual's right to free speech.

Consider a criminal who – like Mr. Thatcher – argues he was wrongfully convicted. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, sentenced to die in New Jersey for murder, wrote a book while in prison, and his conviction was overturned. And what of battered women who kill a violent spouse and are convicted for it? Shouldn't they be permitted to argue that they were unjustly convicted, or punished excessively?

Suppressing speech from a class of people, in this case convicted criminals, is risky in itself. Convicted people may have certain experiences that the public could benefit from hearing; these could be about life in prison, or about the inner workings of the Mafia, or a terrorist group, or about the justice system or police, or their parents and the schools, or the life that ex-criminals have when released into the community.

It is hard to imagine who would wish to buy Mr. Thatcher's self-justifying tome, to be published by ECW Press of Toronto. He killed his ex-wife JoAnn Wilson (née Geiger) after a bitter custody battle, and spent more than two decades in prison before being paroled. Apparently he learned nothing. But he (or those in a similar position, since Saskatchewan is not proposing a retroactive law aimed at Mr. Thatcher himself) did serve his time.

It is unjust, even loathsome, when crime pays. But governments should be careful about depriving convicted criminals of the right to expression.

No comments: