Punk legend Jello Biafra is furious about a California bill that would
ban state investment in record companies producing "offensive" music -- but
it's not simply the legislation that has raised the ire of the former singer of the
It's the community of artists that such a law should offend, but very well may not,
Specifically, Biafra is concerned that other members of the arts community won't
oppose the measure because it specifically involves music.
"Hollywood damn well better fight this time," said the San Francisco-based
singer/political activist who also heads the Alternative Tentacles Records label.
"It's in their own backyard. They can't just put their heads in the sand and
pretend that since the bill only applies to music that it won't soon apply
to their violent and questionable TV shows."
The measure, proposed last week by State Assemblyman Keith Olberg (R-34th
District), prohibits money from several state-employee retirement funds
from being invested in companies that produce music that explicitly
describes, glamorizes or advocates such acts as robbery, assault, murder,
pedophilia, drug use, gang activity and violence against a particular sex,
race or ethnic group.
Those criteria for offensiveness were "more broad than they should be," Olberg
said, adding that his staff is working to more narrowly define the standards
before the bill is slated for a vote in the Public Employees Retirement System
Committee in the coming weeks.
The California measure follows similar legislation in Texas that was signed
into law last summer. While the Texas law takes effect Sept. 1, 1998, the
California measure would not require divestiture until Jan. 1, 2005.
Reprise Records spokesman Bob Merlis called the bill a "stunt" that unfairly
targets the music industry. "Why is music in their sights and not other media --
it's not equal application of the law," he said.
"This is the same thing we've seen since White Citizens' Councils started
circling the wagons over rock 'n' roll being race-mixing music in the
'50s," Merlis added. "Music is a red herring. It's always been used by
demagogues to put themselves on the map. I'm not taking it lightly, but I'm
not surprised [the bill was proposed]."
Claiming that he has not looked into banning state investments in other media
producing "offensive" material, Olberg said, "The movie issue is a separate
issue for a separate time."
During an informational hearing last Wednesday, Recording Industry
Association of America President Hilary Rosen said the divestment bill
would "chill the speech of America's performing artists."
But Olberg denied such charges, saying that the measure doesn't attempt to
restrict speech. "We're not saying you cannot use certain words or lyrics," he
said. "All we're saying is that lyrics that we know cause people to take certain
actions that we think are unhealthy for the culture of California, we're not going
to invest in those things and thereby promote such activity. Where in the
Constitution are we required to invest California employees' retirement funds in
order to not violate the First Amendment?"
Biafra, who has a history of fighting what he sees as censorship battles,
is likely to oppose the legislation every step of the way.
In 1986, Biafra was arrested on charges of distributing harmful material to
minors when a sexually explicit poster by H.R. Giger was included in the
Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist album. The trial ended in a hung jury.
"The next step after this is to go after books," Biafra said.