Stone faces flood of lawsuits

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THE UNITED States Supreme Court opened the way for a possible barrage of lawsuits ag-ainst the film Natural Born Killers and its director, Oliver Stone, after it ruled yesterday that Mr Stone's right to free artistic expression did not protect him from allegations that the teenage killing spree depicted in his movie incited real-life violent crimes.

For four years, the family of a Louisiana woman shot and paralysed in her convenience store by two teenage runaways has sought to obtain damages from the makers of the film but has been challenged at every turn by the defendants who claim that depictions of violence on film are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The Supreme Court, however, refused to strike down a ruling by a Lou- isiana appeals court that said the film was not protected, on the grounds that it might have incited "imminent lawless activity".

In the Loiusiana case, the store-owner, Patsy Ann Byers, was attacked by the teenage daughter of an Oklahoma judge and her boyfriend who, according to the plaintiffs, staged an armed robbery on the store shortly after seeing Natural Born Killers on video.

The ruling could have broad repercussions for film- makers in general, who have weathered severe criticism from politicians and the families of crime victims but have never yet had to answer in court for their depictions of violence on screen.

Natural Born Killers has been dogged by controversy since its release in 1994. Starring Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson as a pair of deranged teenagers sinking deeper and deeper into graphic violence, it has been accused of spawning copy-cat crimes in the US, France and Britain. In the wake of the Dunblane massacre in 1996, Warner Bros decided to suspend its UK video release indefinitely.

Mr Stone has always defended the film, saying it examines the very problem that it is said to personify - the relationship between suggestive, violent images on screen, and actual flesh-and-blood violence. The film uses several techniques, notably fast cutting and video footage, to underline this theme, and shows the couple becoming grimly fascinated with their own portrayal on the television news.