California Assembly considers ‘death metal’ bill

Wednesday, April 22, 1998

Marilyn Manson...
Marilyn Manson

After claiming recent victories against music censorship efforts in Georgia, Texas and Washington, music industry and civil liberty officials hurried off to California this week to try to stave off a divestiture measure there.


At issue is a measure nicknamed the “death metal” bill, a piece of legislation that would force the state's retirement system to sell its stock of any company producing, selling or marketing music glamorizing gangs, violence, drugs or racism.


A California Assembly committee on public employees, retirement and social security is scheduled to hold a hearing today to discuss the merits of the bill.


Assemblyman Keith Olberg, R-Victorville, said he introduced the bill because music promoting violence or lewd conduct “subsidizes the undermining of our society.” And, he said, he doesn't want state money to be any part of it.


“The thought of chasing the almighty buck at the expense of decimating our culture is a thought that neither I nor (anyone) should accept,” Olberg told the San Francisco Examiner. “The practice of preferring the profits of the recording industry over the safety of women and children is repulsive.”


Olberg's effort could mean the state retirement system would have to sell more than $2 billion in investments. The pension portfolio boasts more than $140 billion in investments.


The bill, if passed, would prohibit any state investment fund from investing in companies with ownership of 10 percent or more of any business producing offensive music. Offensive music, as defined by the bill, includes music that “explicitly describes, glamorizes or advocates” acts of criminal violence, illegal sex acts, criminal gang activity, misogyny or sexual or ethnic violence.


Attempts to reach Olberg at his Sacramento office were not successful.


Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, said the bill creates an arbitrary system where “one bad song out of thousands” could trigger divestiture of a profitable investment.


“That is unfair,” Rosen testified before an Assembly subcommittee last month. “Hundreds of thousands of Californians work in all aspects of the music business. Songwriters, musicians, recording artists, engineers, producers, manager, retailers all may feel the sting of this legislation.”


Rosen said the administration of the bill, should it become law, would prove unwieldy. Pension fund managers would have to hire someone to review songs and trace their ownership.


Although directed at shock-rock groups such as Marilyn Manson, music officials contend the wording of the bill could place songs such as Johnny Cash's “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Mack the Knife” in the offensive category.


“If California, the undisputed center of the worldwide music industry, can consider A.B. 2357, what's to stop Wisconsin, Washington or every other state with fewer constituent interests to target our artists and companies?” Rosen asked.


Last week, a Texas state court threw out a similar law, but not on free-speech grounds. The court overturned the law because it was slipped into the state budget as an amendment at the last minute, violating a Texas law requiring open debate on every new issue.


The RIAA and other groups have been successful in fending off similar music measures in Georgia and Washington. In both states, the legislatures defeated bills forbidding the sale to minors any recordings with the RIAA's parent advisory stickers.


As they did in Georgia and Washington, the music groups plan to defeat California's “death metal” bill with the First Amendment.


“When the government goes into the business … of intentionally causing changes in the content of music, that's censorship, plain and simple,” said Nina Crowley of the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition. “And if anyone says it's not, they're either lying or stupid.”