When asked recently about a fast-moving Georgia bill that would make it a crime to sell albums with parental warning stickers to minors, Bertis Downs said he experienced a bit of deja vu.
Downs, manager of Georgia's most famous musical sons, R.E.M., immediately
recalled a conversation with singer Michael Stipe from more than a decade
ago, back when the Parents Music Resource Center first urged the music
industry to begin applying warning stickers to albums with explicit
language, violence or sexual content.
"Michael said, 'At the front of a record store they should just put a big
sign up that says: Warning -- Entering Area Where There May Be Some
Objectionable Stuff to Some People,' " Downs said.
While Georgia has no intention of mandating such signs, the state is now
one step closer to outlawing the sale of stickered albums to minors. On Tuesday, the Special Judiciary Committee of the Georgia State House of
Representatives voted 5-3 in favor of HB 1170, a bill that would allow
misdemeanor prosecution of retail employees who sell albums bearing the Recording Industry Association of America's
voluntarily applied parental-warning label to customers under 18
years of age.
The bill could go before the full House on Thursday if Speaker Tom Murphy,
D-Ga., calls for a vote. If Murphy decides against a vote this week, HB 1170
moves instead to the House Rules Committee, a filtering body designed to
ensure that pressing matters make it to the floor during the final days of
the House session. If passed out of the Rules Committee, it would then
proceed to the full House.
Many opponents of the measure have already predicted that the measure could
have an unfairly adverse effect on hip-hop artists, whose albums often
feature warning labels. But, surprisingly perhaps, not all hip-hop artists are opposed to the bill.
"I think it's a good thing," said Ali Shaheed Muhammad, 27, of A Tribe
Called Quest, which has released four albums since 1990, none of which
bears a warning sticker. "I'm not a parent, but as one who was a child, and understanding that for us to grow as a nation really, there are certain things that children shouldn't [be exposed to]."
Downs countered that the bill's supporters "are bootstrapping something
that's a voluntary aid in helping parents decide what their children are
listening to. To make [warning stickers] something that now results in a
criminal stigma is obviously an ill-advised law."
The RIAA devised its voluntary parental-warning sticker program in 1985, in
response to criticism of graphic lyrics by activist groups such as the Parents Music Resource Center, which was co-founded by Vice President Al Gore's wife, Tipper. Since then, several states, including Pennsylvania, Louisiana and
Washington, have attempted and failed to pass bills that would make it
illegal to sell stickered albums to minors. The RIAA fought those measures, and testified against the bill before the Special Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
"This bill takes a voluntary program meant to provide guidance to parents
and turns it into a basis for convicting someone of a crime," said
Alexandra Walsh, spokeswoman for the RIAA. "We will continue to fight
against this clearly unconstitutional bill and we're confident that the
First Amendment will be upheld."
A responsible citizenry, however, has to balance First Amendment concerns
with the safety of its children, Muhammad said.
"People may say it's censorship but, I mean, when do we draw the line and
say, well, because I want my freedom of speech, this is the price that we
pay?" he asked. "Kids are growing up extremely fast -- extremely -- and there's not much, there's no innocence, because you may see someone's brains blasted, spread open, and you're so numb to it. You don't have a feeling, like, this is bad ... It's just so normal."
But according to rapper Ice Cube, the measure is just another form of censorship. "It's fascism. It's plain control, you know? They ain't gonna stop Toys R Us from selling plastic guns, are they?"
Despite his support for the Georgia bill, Muhammad said that he, however, was
uncomfortable with the government having a role in the voluntary stickering
process, and that he feared one day the state may be charged with deciding
which albums receive parental warning labels.
"Right now we really have to fine-tooth comb what should have a sticker and
what should not," Muhammad said. "I think it's wack that it boils down to
the government telling us, 'Look this is [OK], that [is not OK].' Because usually, once it gets that far, there's no turning back. And if you do turn it back, it takes so long."
Still, artists who graphically depict potentially offensive material must consider the impressionable minds of their youthful audience, Muhammad added. "Sometimes, the ego gets involved, the ego of, 'Well, it's my right,' as
opposed to 'Yeah, it's your right, but why don't you be a little more
mindful to what you do?' "
And while Downs said he realizes that some artists are irresponsible, he added that the state has no right to intervene in how someone chooses to express himself. "I think it's a bad idea to have the government regulating speech like this," Downs said. "I think it's something that would not hold up under First Amendment scrutiny, and that it will be challenged successfully.
"But, in the meanwhile, there will be a very bad, chilling effect on the industry in Georgia and otherwise." [Tues., Feb. 3, 1998, 5 p.m. PST]