American Civil Liberties Union Briefer +-------------------------+ POPULAR MUSIC UNDER SIE

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American Civil Liberties Union Briefer +-------------------------+ POPULAR MUSIC UNDER SIEGE +-------------------------+ Beginning in the 1980s, religious fundamentalists and some parents' groups have waged a persistent campaign to limit the variety of cultural messages available to American youth by attacking the content of some of the music industry's creative products. These attacks have taken numerous forms, including a call by the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) for the labeling of recordings whose themes or imagery relate to sexuality, violence, drug or alcohol use, suicide or the "occult," and prosecutions of record companies and storeowners for producing or selling albums that contain controversial songs. After years of pressure from the PMRC and a series of Senate hearings in 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) introduced, in 1990, a uniform labeling system using the logo, "Parental Advisory - Explicit Lyrics." The RIAA initiated this system without providing record companies with any standards, criteria or guidelines for determining what albums should be labeled. That decision is left completely up to the companies, which have chosen to label only selected rock and rap albums and not recordings of country music, opera or musical comedy that may also contain controversial material. Dissatisfied with the RIAA's labels, many would-be censors have demanded even more limits on the sale of music with controversial lyrics. As a result, legislators have introduced bills in more than 20 states in recent years that would require warning labels far more detailed than the RIAA's. Some proposed laws would go beyond mandatory labeling and actually ban the sale to minors of music deemed to be objectionable. Until 1992, none of this legislation had passed, although in 1991 a bill in Louisiana failed by only one vote. In 1992, however, the state of Washington passed a law that required storeowners to place "adults only" labels on recordings a judge had found to be "erotic"; the law also criminalized the sale of any labeled CD or tape to a person under age 18. Fortunately, the law was never enforced because a few months after passage a state court declared it unconstitutional. Even though Washington's "erotic music" law failed, the battle over proposals to label or otherwise restrict certain music sales will probably continue. The groups and individuals who have been attacking popular music want to impose their personal moral and political standards on the rest of us. The American Civil Liberties Union is working hard to prevent the achievement of that goal, which would imperil the First Amendment rights of musicians, and of all Americans, to create, perform and hear music of our own choosing. ===================================================================== What's wrong with voluntary labeling? Isn't it, like movie rating, a harmless way to give parents consumer information that can help them make intelligent choices for their kids? ===================================================================== Even "voluntary" labeling is not harmless. First of all, a label on an album is no proof whatsoever that the music inside is in any way harmful or illegal. Yet many music stores, including some of the largest national chains, refuse to sell labeled albums to minors, and some stores refuse to carry them at all out of fear that the wrath of pressure groups will bring bad publicity and possible boycotts. Some people argue that an "explicit lyrics" label, like an "R" movie rating, actually boosts sales by drawing attention to the labeled album. This may or may not be true, but we can say for sure that fans can't buy an album if it's not in the store. Labeling is a red flag for would-be censors, who want to see the content of popular music regulated as much as possible. Even worse, the RIAA's "Parental Advisory" label is now used as a model for labeling legislation that would establish government censorship of record sales to minors. The RIAA label also has encouraged pro-"decency" prosecutors to target particular albums when threatening storeowners with prosecution, usually in the hope of persuading the storeowners to stop selling those albums. Is labeling truly helpful to parents? No. All a label means is that, in somebody's opinion, some parents might consider the labeled material unfit for their children. The only way parents who want to supervise their children's musical experiences can really learn anything about a tape or CD is to personally examine the package, which often includes printed lyrics. Then, they can decide for themselves whether it's acceptable or not. ================================================================= What about government labeling or classification of music lyrics? ================================================================= "Voluntary" labeling is bad enough, but government labeling would be worse still -- worse for musicians, for manufacturers, for listeners and for the Constitution. The labeling bills proposed to date have offered very vague standards for determining what albums should be labeled, making it impossible for artists, record companies and stores to understand whether or how the laws apply to them. A New Jersey bill, for example, would require a "parental advisory" label on lyrics that discuss "suicide, incest, bestiality, sadomasochism, rape or involuntary sexual penetration, or which advocate or encourage murder, ethnic, racial or religious intimidation, the use of illegal drugs or the excessive or illegal use of alcohol." That list could cover everything from the opera, "La Traviata," to the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Such vagueness makes artists and others in the music industry feel that they must censor themselves to avoid risking criminal prosecution. Most important of all, labeling requirements are usually coupled with restrictions on sales. Therefore, mandatory labeling laws would bring about unconstitutional restrictions on the First Amendment right of artists to express themselves freely, and on their fans' right to hear what the artists express -- whatever the subject might be. ========================================================================== What about laws that keep music with antisocial, misogynistic or violent messages away from minors -- doesn't society have an obligation to protect kids? ========================================================================== Courts have ruled that the government does have an interest in protecting children. As a result, many states now have "harmful to minors" laws that are modified versions of adult obscenity laws. These laws specifically target works that are sexually explicit and lack serious artistic or other value. Lyric-labeling legislation, however, doesn't limit itself to sexual material that lacks value; instead of being specific, these bills usually target a wide range of topics regardless of whether the music has value. Because many of our elected officials disrespect rock and rap music and its fans, they don't feel it's necessary to be specific about music that they regard as an amorphous mass of unsavory images and messages. For example, the real target of the police groups and others who sought to ban "Cop Killer," claiming that the song advocates the murder of police officers, appeared to be Ice-T's political viewpoint. "Cop Killer" is a work of musical fiction that depicts violence against the police as a response to police brutality. It reflects a radical attitude held by some inner city residents, who are furious about the police abuse of authority they feel they have witnessed or experienced. As a practical matter, it's impossible to know exactly what message a particular listener takes from "Cop Killer." But most likely, rather than inciting violence against the police, as its detractors claim, the rap provides an outlet for anger and encourages listeners to think about the issue of police misconduct and the antagonism it creates. ======================================================================= But what if someone listens to "Cop Killer" and then murders a police officer? Don't lyrics that deal with sex, violence, drug use, suicide, etc. cause anti-social behavior? ======================================================================= No direct link between anti-social behavior and exposure to the content of any form of artistic expression has ever been scientifically established. Moreover, scapegoating artistic expression as a cause of social ills is simplistic. How can serious social problems like violent crime, racism or suicide be solved by covering children's ears? If suppressing creative expression were the way to control anti-social behavior, where would you stop? The source of inspiration most frequently cited by criminals has been the Bible. Singer Ozzy Osbourne was sued three times by parents who claimed that his "Suicide Solution" made their sons kill themselves, and the heavy metal band, Judas Priest, faced a similar lawsuit in 1990. In all of these cases, the courts rejected the idea that musicians can be held responsible for the acts of unstable individuals. Throughout American history, popular music has mirrored the thoughts and yearnings of young people. Performers from the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin to Arrested Development and Madonna, have often celebrated change and challenged "the establishment." Clearly, the real intentions of the would-be music censors is to impose on all Americans the tastes and values of political powerbrokers who don't connect with the experiences and concerns of the young, the alienated and minorities. Lyric-labeling, directed almost exclusively at rock and rap music, impoverishes our culture by muzzling the voices of that music's primarily young fans. Such suppression undermines the bedrock of our freedoms, the First Amendment, and it makes us all less free. Produced by the Arts Censorship Project American Civil Liberties Union Public Education Department 132 West 43rd Street New York, N.Y. 10036 ================== ACLU Free Reading Room | A publications and information resource of the gopher:// | American Civil Liberties Union National Office | | "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty"


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