I am all for free speech. Ridiculously open free speech. But I’m also for good taste, which should be exercised by individuals. An interesting ruling has just come down from U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Thrash in a case against Hustler magazine. Hustler wanted to publish naked photos of World Wrestling Entertainment star Chris Benoit’s murdered wife Nancy. Benoit killed his wife and 7-year-old son on June 24th before killing himself. The crime got a lot of national attention due to Benoit’s semi-celebrity and the nature of the crimes. Many thought his rage might have been brought on by steroids, though eventual tests showed that Benoit’s brain had suffered severe trauma from all the years of wrestling. Dr. Julian Bailes, the head of neurosurgery at West Virginia University who examined Benoit’s brain noted, “Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.” The whole case was truly a tragedy.
Hustler, however, saw it as an opportunity for profit. 25 years ago, Nancy, an aspiring model, posed nude for photographer Mark Samansky. Her then-husband James Daus was present for the entire shoot in 1983. It appears that after the Benoit tragedy, Samansky offered to sell the photos of Nancy to Hustler, and they accepted. Nancy’s mother, Maureen Toffoloni, tried to get a temporary restraining order against the publication of the pictures, however the judge ruled against her.
[U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas] Thrash based his decision on First Amendment rights that provide for freedom of expression. He cited the substantial volume of publicity and media attention surrounding the Benoit tragedy in saying Hustler magazine deserved that protection.
The request for the restraining order was the first effort in a lawsuit filed by Toffoloni, administrator of Nancy Benoit’s estate, against the magazine and Samansky. The suit, which calls for unspecified damages including legal fees and litigation costs, was filed in Fayette County Superior Court earlier this week but was moved to U.S. District Court because the case involved a constitutional issue.
The suit contends that Nancy Benoit, who was married to James Daus from 1981 to 1986, never gave permission for the photos to be used for a “pornographic” magazine whose content includes “graphic and sexual photographs of nude women.” [Daus testified] “Neither Nancy nor I ever gave Mr. Samansky permission to use the photographs or any videotape in any way,” he said, adding that he and Nancy had been assured all the images had been destroyed.
[From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution]
What a terrible thing to do to the memory of an innocent woman whose life ended in such a tragic way. While I’m all for free speech, Hustler should have shown some self-restraint and not published the photos. And they shouldn’t have dragged Nancy Benoit’s family through court proceedings, which I’m sure are the last thing they need right now. Hustler isn’t exactly known for it’s exceptional taste, but this is truly below the belt.