The Law: Sticker Shock

Pennsylvania tries to turn labels into laws.


On either side of the main entrance to the capitol building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, are larger-than-life statues depicting men and women herded in masses, struggling for those oblique ideals that government art always seems to evoke: liberty and freedom and justice.

Several years ago, Pennsylvania's lawmakers decided those white-stoned statues guarding the gates of liberty and freedom and justice were taking just a bit too much liberty in dangling their freedom for all to see. So they commissioned modern-day artists to plaster over the statues' private parts.

This year, Pennsylvania's lawmakers are involved in a new debate over a different kind of public exposure. As a result, they found themselves unwittingly exposed to other possibly offensive art: an anti-censorship activist attempting to regale them loudly with the naughty lyrics of number-one rapper and murder suspect Snoop Doggy Dogg during a debate over a new law that would outlaw selling recordings with warning labels to minors. This dispute has drawn the national attention and lobbying muscle of special interest groups and civil liberties advocates–and also splintered traditional liberals and fueled charges of racism from all sides.

Black-and-white "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics" labels have been applied to albums by the recording industry itself for nearly a decade. But the labeling was only agreed to under public pressure, and with the understanding that the labels were informational, not a legal instrument to restrict sales. If this bill passes–and it seems likely to–it could change the ground rules not only in Pennsylvania, but in other states looking to follow suit.

Similar debates are already raging in at least four other states:

? In Washington state, the Harmful Material to Minors bill would create "adults only" sections in music stores, and keep minors out of concerts where "harmful recordings" were performed.

? In Louisiana, a $1,000 fine or six-month prison term could be handed down to violators of a proposed bill that would prohibit the sale or distribution of "lyrics harmful to minors," with a minor defined as an unmarried person under the age of 17.

? In New York, a bill proposed in March would prohibit the sale of music to minors with lyrics describing, advocating, or glamorizing suicide, sodomy, rape, incest, bestiality, sadomasochism, adultery, murder, violent racism, religious violence, morbid violence, or the illegal use of drugs or alcohol.

? And in New Mexico, a bill currently in the state House's Judiciary Committee would make it illegal to expose minors to violent or sexually explicit material through media including pictures, sculptures, film, and music.

Such laws would be a serious blow to First Amendment rights. But beyond the legal and constitutional problems are more difficult questions about racism, the social responsibility of the megamillion-dollar recording industry, and the ever-increasing violence that plagues America's city streets and the teenagers who hang out there.

A floor vote on the Pennsylvania bill is expected sometime this fall in the state House of Representatives. It sailed through the Judiciary Committee 15-6 in February, and it can probably pass on the floor with the same margin of popularity.

The law, if passed, would create two new crimes in Pennsylvania. First, it would make it a crime for any store owner to knowingly sell a tape or compact disc with a parental warning label on it to anyone under 18 years old, unless the minor's parents were present. It would also make it a crime for a minor to misrepresent himself or herself as being 18 years old in order to buy music with a warning label. Anyone who sells the music to a minor would owe a $25 fine for the first offense and a $100 fine for each subsequent offense. Minors caught buying the music would be forced into 10 hours of community service.

Democratic state Rep. T.J. Rooney, the prime sponsor of the bill, says the measure would help curb "youth violence that is undoubtedly fueled by the type of irresponsible stuff they hear in these recordings….I'm not dumb enough or naive enough to believe if this bill passes it will solve all our problems. But it's got to be part of the larger discussion."

The discussion isn't just about whether any restriction of music sales is right. A larger question is: What music is being labelled, and who does the labeling?

"All the talk about this being unconstitutional is a bunch of crock," says Rooney. The Constitution safeguards the public against governmental powers. Since the state would have nothing to say about which recordings get slapped with a label, the state would not be acting as a censor, he says. "It just drives the record industry nuts because we're using their own standards," Rooney chuckles.

To some degree, he's right. The unhappy task of self-censorship already falls on the recording industry. In 1985, under pressure from the National Parent-Teacher Association and the Parents Music Resource Center (led by now-Second Lady Tipper Gore), the recording industry agreed to voluntarily sticker music with violent or sexually explicit lyrics. The measure was meant to help parents decide what music may or may not be appropriate for their children to hear.

Now Rooney wants to use that same voluntary industry standard to regulate the sale of music, something that not only goes beyond the original intent of the labels, but in fact does exactly what the labeling was designed to prevent.

Legal history suggests the government can't base laws on industry standards and then claim it isn't compromising the Constitution. In a landmark 1970 case (which, coincidentally, was decided in Pennsylvania and prosecuted and lost by now-U.S. senator and presidential candidate Arlen Specter), the courts ruled that the movie industry's self-imposed rating system couldn't be adopted as a legal standard.

So if a theater owner admits a 15-year-old to an R-rated movie, he may have breached industry ethics, but he hasn't broken any laws. In the same way, if a retailer decides to sell a CD with a warning label on it to a 12-year-old, the retailer may not be exercising his best judgment, but the government doesn't have the right to stop him.

Even if the law isn't unconstitutional, Rooney's ideas about it have a couple of problems. First, the term "industry standard" is misleading. In reality, there is no standard. Whether or not a particular recording gets a parental warning label is up to the individual record companies. A song could be recorded at one company and released with a warning label, while another company releasing the same song wouldn't attach the label.

Second, the labeling is voluntary. If a law made selling recordings more difficult, "there's no question the recording industry would pull off the labels," says Mickey Granberg, director of government relations for the National Association of Recording Merchandisers. "[A law] would accomplish exactly the opposite of what it intended: The recording industry would simply label fewer and fewer pieces."

The law has possible perverse effects in the opposite direction as well. Despite the claim by politicians that the law would curb sales, and the outcry from the national retailing lobbyists about how it would adversely affect the industry, some record store managers say such a ban might actually increase sales. They point to Ice-T's controversial CD Body Count, which contained the song "Cop Killer."

Bill Duffy, manager of Tower Records on South Street in Philadelphia, believes the album "would have been nothing without all the attention it was given." But the controversy surrounding it made it a best seller. Duffy suggests the same thing would happen to stickered CDs if the Pennsylvania bill became law, and guffaws at the suggestion that record companies would pull off the stickers. On the contrary, he says, they may just sticker more CDs, saying it's an "obvious way to double your sales."

Some critics charge that the law isn't intended as a general assault on the First Amendment: It's a thinly masked attempt by frightened white power brokers to muzzle specifically the discontent of young, mostly African-American, voices. Oddly, those charges come most strongly from the white spokespeople representing the recording industry–which sells a large amount of these records to white adolescents, who aren't accused of turning their neighborhoods into battlegrounds as a result.

"When Rooney and his ilk say the word music, it's code for rap," insists Paul Russinoff, director of state relations for the Recording Industry Association of America in Washington, D.C. "A lot of people are uncomfortable with young African-American males speaking their minds."

Elijah Anderson, an African-American professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that opposing the law is "only superficially" about freedom of expression. The larger issue is "class control….Rap music is often a poetic way of representing the conditions of class that have developed between those in inner cities and those who have deserted them." Whites fear what they see happening in the inner cities–an increasingly downward spiral in quality of life, hopelessness, and violence. So far, this rarely affects them directly, and they want to stay as far away from it as they can. But rap music brings it into their living rooms. To stay secure from the disturbing message, Anderson says, white politicians try to censor the source: the rappers.

Rooney calls the racial allegations "baseless" and "ridiculous," saying the recording "wouldn't be labeled according to the race of the artists, just the violence of the lyrics." He also points to the fact that many black activist organizations have joined in supporting his bill.

The Snoop Doggy Dogg reading before the House Judiciary Committee, in fact, happened when C. Delores Tucker of the National Political Congress of Black Women attacked Snoop, claiming his lyrics are fouler than anything you'd overhear in a men's locker room. To illustrate her point, she brought a blow-up of some of the offending lyrics and offered $100 to anyone who dared read the words out loud in public. A white man, Randy Lee Payton, co-founder of Rock Out Censorship, an Ohio-based anti-censorship group, leapt to the challenge, but he was silenced by the Judiciary Committee's chair. Tucker never paid up.

The scene graphically illustrates the point that even the racial debate is not simply a matter of black and white. Many buyers of this purported music of black rage are adolescent whites. And some of the strongest support for the bill comes from black leaders whose communities are hardest hit by a new generation of teen violence. That violence, many of them contend, is encouraged, even promoted, by lyrics often found in rap music.

"Obviously this type of music has an impact on young people," declares Thomas A. Smith Jr., president of the Pennsylvania State Conference of NAACP branches, who testified in favor of the bill. "There is an association between this kind of music and violence, and where is that violence taking place? Primarily in minority communities. The recording industry just wants to make money, and if it's off the blood of the black and Hispanic communities, who cares?"

But the cause-and-effect link between rap music and violence is weak. For every scholar who offers research that the link exists, another will offer research to dispute the claim. After centuries of debate, we're still not certain whether life imitates art, or art imitates life. But after all these years, lawmakers still think they know what's best for all of us to see or hear.

One of the worst side effects of proposals like Rooney's–whether or not it ever becomes law–is the effect it could have on keeping art from imitating real life. If opponents are successful in creating an atmosphere of apprehension about certain kinds of music that discuss violent realities, companies may become less willing to take financial risks on controversial music genres. And if recording companies become more conservative in what they'll sign up, regardless of public interest, artists may have to self-censor their work to sell it.

Which may be exactly what the Pennsylvania Legislature has in mind. (Remember those statues.)

Mubarak S. Dahir is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. His work has also appeared in Time, The Progressive, and America's Censored News.