When it comes to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, there is often controversy about what it protects. This is why people question whether or not things like music are protected under free speech. Artists tend to say that their art shouldn't be censored, due to it being their outlet for self-expression. There are those who challenge this idea though, because of the fact that some lyrics have the potential to offend or even harm certain groups of people. This makes the concept of free speech through music a murky one.
The main thing to consider is here, is the idea of free speech. It is hard to censor music, because as Ken Paulsen, executive director for the First Amendment Center, said art forms like dance, poetry, film, etc. are all protected under free speech. About 60% of people in a 2001 survey even said that they recognize it as free expression, and believe it should be treated as such (Paulsen). The other 40% did not believe this though, which is why it comes into a question. Proponents of censorship all have various reasons for supporting it, but it is all worth considering.
One way people justify censorship is by using the argument that it can inspire violent acts. Benjamin Frymer of Sonoma State University discussed this idea in terms of the Columbine shootings. The offenders, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were part of a group called the Trench Coat Mafia, which was a gothic cult, whose members were fans of musicians like Marilyn Manson (Frymer). This resulted in the news media using Manson as a scapegoat, and trying to blame the music for horrible acts of violence. Phil Chalmers, founder and president of True Lies Youth Talks, also discussed a similar situation in his book Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer. Sarah Kolb and Corey Gregory, two teenagers who were fans of the horrorcore rap group Insane Clown Posse, murdered and burned the body of their classmate Adrianne Reynolds (Chalmers). Like the previously mentioned situation, the music was to blame, simply because these kids listened to tracks heavily weighted in murderous themes.
The music is not necessarily the problem though. In fact, a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General report, that mental stability and home life are the main factors that influence violent acts. Media, including music, is not as significant, in terms of influence, because the people who commit crimes are not necessarily mentally stable to begin with. Besides, if anything, media violence actually has the potential to help people. A study conducted by The University of Queensland in Australia found that aggressive/violent forms of music like heavy metal actually make people calmer, rather than violent. Leah Sharman, one of the leaders of the study, said that music like this can "match [people's] anger" and make it so they can "self-regulate." It is easy to use music as a scapegoat, and call for censorship when you see what offenders listen to, but the findings that dispute the correlation between violent music and violent crimes need to be considered.
Going off this, people also support censorship, because they feel that some lyrical content can lead to suicide. This is similar to the violence argument though, because mental stability, and outside forces do have to be considered. Most of the time, artists charged with inciting self-harm are not even convicted. Kory Grow, a Rolling Stone contributor, discussed a 1985 case, which involved two Judas Priest fans from Nevada, Raymond Belknap and James Vance, who attempted suicide after listening to the band's music. The thing that has to be considered though, is the fact that these men were probably not in the right state of mind, due to the fact that they were drinking and doing drugs beforehand. Vance survived and his family sued the band and their label for putting subliminal messaging on their cover of Spooky Tooth's "Better by You, Better Than Me (Grow)." The court found the band innocent, and Vance died three years later.
Kim Murphy, a staff writer for the LA Times, talked about a similar case that also happened in 1986, when John McCollum shot himself after listening to Ozzy Osbourne's "Suicide Solution." The parents decided to file a lawsuit, but the case was dismissed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John L. Cole, who said Osbourne was protected under the First Amendment. Cole went on to say that censoring tracks like this would have "chilling effect" on future works (Murphy). This case is especially significant, since it was directly based on freedom of speech. Also, like the argument against the censoring of works with violent content, they also mentioned how tracks tend to only affect those who already have issues. CBS' attorney William Vaughn even said, this was simply a case of an "unfortunate young man" who was " particularly susceptible... and troubled." (Murphy).
Another argument for censorship is that some songs can be seen as too "obscene," because of sexually explicit lyrics. Obscenity was a big reason Tipper Gore, Susan Baker, Pam Howar, and Sally Neviusthe formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), in 1985 to try to make it easier for parents to control what their children listened to. Maria Fontenot, of Texas Tech University, and Chad Hariss of New York's Alfred University, actually noted that Gore was outraged after she bought her daughter a copy of the Purple Rain soundtrack, and heard Prince's "Darling Nikki," which had sexually explicit lyrics. This led her on a crusade to attack obscene music through the creation of the PMRC. The group tried to showcase songs that they felt were objectionable with their "Filthy 15" list (Fontenot, Hariss). 9 out of the 15 songs were on the list, because of sexual content, such as AC/DC's "Let Me Put My Love Into You," W.A.S.P.'s "Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)," etc. These songs were seen as inappropriate to children, and led to the PMRC making the infamous "Parental Advisory" sticker (Fontenot, Hariss).
The thing about this argument is that it sort of falls apart, since obscenity is hard to define, due to people having different views about the concept. Most songs are protected under free speech, and the "Parental Advisory" label is technically voluntary (Fontenot, Hariss), so people can't really stop musicians from writing sexually explicit tracks. Musicians even attacked the PMRC founders with sexual lyrics after they tried censor them. One notable track is Ice-T's appropriately named "Freedom Speech," which attacked Gore specifically.
On another note, Andy Thomas, a writer for Westword Magazine, said things like "Parental Advisory" stickers are completely ineffective, and that they just make it so kids want to purchase explicit albums more. Thomas was actually one of these kids himself, when he lied to his mother so he could purchase White Zombie's La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1 in 1992. Today's kids do the same, and actually have more access to explicit content, due to streaming services. It just goes to show, that censoring will not solve the problem, and that parents would be better off just explaining things to children, rather than hiding them from the world.
People also think music should be censored when it challenges authority. One of the most obvious examples of this is N.W.A.'s "Fuck Tha Police." Asawin Suebsaeng, deputy social media editor for The Daily Beast, said the track was condemned by the FBI, politicians, the LAPD, and more, due to its controversial themes regarding police brutality and racism. The track questioned the police's authority, and many thought it could lead to violence towards them. The same thing went for tracks like Body Count's "Cop Killer," which dealt with similar themes (Fontenot, Hariss).
Other tracks that directly targeted politicians also fall into this category. For instance, Steve Hochman, a writer for the LA Times, talked about tracks like "Bush Killa," which was recorded by rapper Paris. This song was about a plot to assassinate George H. W. Bush, and people weren't too happy about. Time Warner didn't want to release the song, and even tried to pay him off, but he ended up taking the money and self-releasing it, claiming that it was just a political statement. (Hochman). Another track like this, is Eminem's song "Mosh," which Alex Mar, a contributor for Rolling Stone, described as a protest against George W. Bush with lyrics like "We gonna let him know/Stomp, push, shove, mush, fuck Bush!/Until they bring our troops home" and "Let the president answer on higher anarchy/Strap him with an AK-47, let him go fight his own war/Let him impress daddy that way . . . No more blood for oil."
All the controversy surrounding these tracks stem from the idea that challenging authority could lead to things like riots, uprising, etc.. This argument makes sense, but it is irrelevant in terms of the First Amendment. According to Cornell University Law School, the landmark case of Brandenburg v. Ohio found that states can't "forbid advocacy," unless it is clearly "inciting or producing imminent lawless action" (Cornell University Law School). That means musicians can write songs that advocate standing up against authority, and the institution as a whole. The line between "advocacy" and "incitement" could be seen as blurred, but most of the time artists are not telling people to actually go out and do the things they sing about. They are just simply expressing their political views, through music.
Proponents of censorship also argue that it can be necessary to maintain a state of political correctness. A good example is Michael Jackson track "They Don't Care About Us." According to Bernard Weinraub, a writer for the New York Times, the song featured lyrics like "Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/ Kick me, kike me, don't you black or white me," and led to people viewing Jackson as an anti-Semite. He ended up apologizing, and re-recording the track, ultimately censoring it himself. Matt Crane, a contributor for Alternative Press, also talked about more recent example, which involves Attila's 2014 track "Proving Grounds." The word "faggot" is used multiple times throughout the song, and vocalist Chris Fronzak was accused of being homophobic by fans, as well as other musicians like Senses Fail’s Buddy Nielsen (Crane). Fronzak defended himself, and said the following: "If you think I'm homophobic in any way possible, you're clearly an idiot." He went on to say he meant no disrespect to the LGBTQ community, and that he was just targeting his haters with the track (Crane).
These "slurs" may be repulsive, but they technically aren't illegal. According to Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment professor at UCLA School Of Law, says "hate speech" is legally protected by the Constitution. The only thing that would be considered prohibited, would be "fight words," which are "face to face verbal insults," or clear threats towards another person (Volokh). The previously mentioned songs do not fall into these categories, and are therefore protected. People may be offended, but that is not a enough to warrant censorship. The musicians may wind up censoring themselves, if faced with outside pressures, but if they want to stand by their lyrics, they have a right to do so, even if they are considered offensive to a specific group of people.
Basically, all the arguments that support censorship within the music industry have valid points, but there are many other factors to consider in every situation. There will always be outside forces that affect people, but music is not necessarily as significant as others. Besides, artists have a right to say what they want, as long as they aren't directly inciting negative things, so trying to censor them is pointless. If people don't like what they hear, they don't have to listen, and it is as simple as that. Avoidance is better than the alternative, which would be regulation of creative expression. If this were to happen, it could lead to a slippery slope, that causes even more restriction of free speech. That is why it is better to just let artists do what they do, rather than censoring them for the purpose of creating scapegoats for other issues.
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