Whenever singer Eric Davidson hears someone utter the term "fascism," he's likely to eye the speaker with a bit of skepticism.
As the lyricist behind the New Bomb Turks' often politically insightful punk songs, Davidson said he believes that opponents of censorship frequently throw the "f" word around wantonly. Still, even he has trouble avoiding it when talking about a bill working its way through the Washington state legislature that would impose fines, jail time or both for selling "offensive" material to minors.
"Laws like that are presuming that people are stupid and can't really take
care of themselves and make decisions on their own," Davidson said of the bill, HB 1407, which last week was passed out of committee in Washington's
House of Representatives and is now waiting for a vote by the full body.
"It seems a law like that doesn't trust people very much, which is what
fascism is about."
The bill, a similar version of which was passed but vetoed in both 1994 and
'95, would make it illegal to display, sell or distribute to anyone under
age 18 material that is considered "harmful to minors" according to community
standards. Materials covered by the bill include albums and concerts, as
well as books, magazines, films, telephone recordings and other media.
On Feb. 5, the House Committee on Law and Justice voted 8-5 to pass the
measure. If signed into law, those convicted of violating it could be sentenced to up to a year in jail, a fine of $5,000 or both. Following the vote, the bill proceeded to the Rules Committee, which now must place it on the calendar for a vote by the full House of Representatives by Feb. 17, or else the bill will die.
Earlier this month in Georgia, a bill that would make it illegal to sell albums with parental warning stickers to minors passed out of the state's House Special Judiciary Committee. It, too, is waiting on a vote by the full House of Representatives.
"If your 14-year-old buys [an offensive] record, you can sit down and talk with them," Davidson said, explaining that monitoring the choices children make is the responsibility of their parents, not the government.
He acknowledged that with parents working two jobs each these days, and some kids with only one parent or guardian, there's less chance for supervision. Still, he added, "There's always time to go, 'Marilyn Manson sucks, it's really boring -- don't listen to Marilyn Manson.' Or you can go [down] other avenues. Say, 'That's not cool, that's not funny, and I'd rather you didn't listen to that.' That's the way you learn to make your own decisions."
But at a hearing held last year regarding the bill, Republican Rep. Michael Carrell said that parental guidance of minors was not enough to ensure that they were protected from harmful materials. He compared the Washington state bill to speed-limit laws.
"Even if I, as a parent, tell my son or daughter not to go out and speed, we
have to have legal means of assuring that that's not done -- that's why we
have police," said Carrell, who voted for the measure last week. "My
authority as a parent does not extend out there in the streets when my
child is away from me."
However, parental authority should not be transformed into government
censorship, said Democratic Rep. Dow Constantine, who opposed the measure
in last week's vote. "It attacks the First Amendment," Constantine said
of the bill. "It would ban a huge range of visual and recorded images and
music ... most popular music would be off limits."
Under the parameters established by the bill, material is considered harmful
to minors if it meets the requirements of a three-part standard: 1) the
average adult applying contemporary community standards would find it
appeals to the prurient interest of minors; 2) it explicitly depicts or
describes, by prevailing standards in the adult community with respect to
what is suitable for minors, patently offensive representations or
descriptions of specifically defined conduct; and 3) when considered as a
whole, it lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.
Museums, historical societies, and college, university and publicly controlled libraries are exempt from the bill's constraints. Specific examples of "patently offensive" activity include sexual acts, sexually explicit nudity, sexual acts that are violent and excretory functions.
"Think about this," Constantine said. "Can [the once controversial MTV cartoon] 'Beavis and Butthead' be aired in Washington [if this bill is passed]?"
Whether a particular item was offensive would be settled in court after an
arrest for violating the measure was made, according to Edie Adams, a staff
attorney who worked on the bill for the Law and Justice Committee. "It
would have to be determined at trial," Adams said. "If the person chose a
jury trial, it would be up to the jury to determine whether the material in
question met the definition of 'harmful to minors.' " [Tues., Feb. 10, 1998, 7 p.m. PST]