I now intend to outline the process through
which a concern with information could lead to
censorship. Four main phases can be observed.
The first step was a series of attacks against
individual artists, taking advantage of what
existing legislation there was. The second
involved initiatives by local authorities
relying on the warning label as an indicator of
what should be censored. This was followed by
efforts at States level to pass legislation
defining what could be sold and to whom, still
on the basis of the warning label. The whole
brouhaha eventually inspired record companies to
exert more than caution regarding the nature
of their production.
The most spectacular attack on an individual
artist came in 1986. It was directed at Jello
Biafra, leader of the Dead Kennedys, who was
indicted for having included in one of his
records (Frankenchrist) a poster by Swiss artist
Giger depicting sexual organs. The grounds upon
which the charge was brought were 'infrigement
of section 313.3 of the Californian Penal Code'
(distribution of harmful material to minors).
Though Jello Biafra was eventually discharged,
the trial left him head over ears in debt,
without a group and unable to record for years.
The PMRC cannot deny having been directly
involved in the case; during the trial, it
released the following
PMRC feels that the poster and the Dead Kennedys'
album Frankenchrist is a blatant example of
pornography and failure to provide truth in
packaging. The warning sticker which was placed
on the shrink wrap, not on the album itself,
claims that the poster is a work of art which
some may find repulsive and offensive. This does
not relay the explicit nature of the poster and
does not adequately warn parents to the contents
of the album.
The right to consumer information prior to
purchasing a product is the time honoured
principle in this country. This is clearly a
violation of that principle. (PMRC, 1986, p.28)
the PMRC did not call for the suppression of the
album, merely for better 'truth in packaging',
but its involvement in the trial weakens its
claim of standing against any kind of censorship.
In the wake of this early trial, local
authorities tried to make the most of existing
legislation to increase their control over what
was sold in their district, particularly to
minors. Bills, 'informal' letters by local
police officers, council ordinances, a dazzling
array of (sometimes barely) legal weaponry was
used to criminalize the sale of certain records.
This time, the attacks no longer bore on
specific individuals but on a whole range of
music. Most of the time, the targets were
selected on the basis of the warning label,
though the labels had no legal standing
regarding what could or could not be sold to
minors. The most dramatic case concerned the rap
group 2 Live Crew.
On February 6, 1990, following a prosecution on
obscenity grounds by Broward County Sheriff Nick
Navarro, Judge Grossman of the Boward County
Circuit Court issued a 'probable case' ruling,
stating that he had good reasons to think the
album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was obscene and
therefore illegal under Florida law.
The order was simply photocopied and distributed
to local record shop owners who were threatened
with arrest if they failed to comply. Most
retailers subsequently stopped selling the
record, except 3 who were accordingly arrested.