How did 'Son of Sam' laws come to be known by their unusual name?
Serial killer David Berkowitz terrorized the city of New York during much of 1976 and 1977. He killed and wounded several people, allegedly on orders from a spirit that inhabited the body of his neighbor whose first name was Sam. According to Berkowitz, this spirit spoke to him through Sam’s dog. The media dubbed Berkowitz the “Son of Sam” after he referred to himself as such in a letter left at one of the crime scenes. After he was apprehended, Berkowitz was reportedly offered a substantial amount of money for the rights to his story. After hearing these reports, the New York Assembly in 1977 passed a law that was designed to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes. This statute, which inspired several similar laws across the country, was nicknamed the “Son of Sam” law.
Which book caused the U.S. Supreme Court to examine the constitutionality of New York’s 'Son of Sam' law?
The book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi sparked a lawsuit that eventually led the U.S. Supreme Court to examine the constitutionality of New York’s Son of Sam law in Simon & Schuster Inc. v. New York State Crime Victims Bd.The book, published in January 1986, examined the life of Henry Hill, recounting many of his criminal activities while in the Mafia. The book was later made into the Oscar-winning film “Goodfellas.” The New York Crime Victims Board contacted the publisher of Wiseguy, Simon & Schuster, and ordered the publisher to turn over monies that it had contracted to pay Hill for his help in the creation of the book. Simon & Schuster then filed a lawsuit, seeking a declaration from the court that the New York Son of Sam law violated the First Amendment.
Why did the Supreme Court strike down New York’s 'Son of Sam' law?
The Court struck down New York’s "Son of Sam" law in 1991 in Simon & Schuster Inc. v. New York State Crime Victims Bd. because it found the law to be “significantly overinclusive.” The Court reasoned that the law would apply to any book in which the author makes even a passing reference to a past crime. The Court noted that the law technically could apply to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Confessions of St. Augustine and Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience if it had been on the books when these works were published. The law simply reached too far, covered too many works and was not “narrowly tailored,” the Court said.
Did the Supreme Court say that all 'Son of Sam' laws were unconstitutional?
No, the Court reserved judgment on other "Son of Sam" laws. “The Federal Government and many of the States have enacted statutes designed to serve purposes similar to those served by the Son of Sam law,” the Court wrote. “Some of these statutes may be quite different from New York’s, and we have no occasion to determine the constitutionality of these other laws.” This presents the possibility that a "Son of Sam" law that is crafted more narrowly and with more precision than the New York law could survive constitutional review by the Supreme Court.