California committee nixes ‘death metal’ bill

Thursday, April 23, 1998

California Assemblyman Keith Olberg started reading a gangsta rap song about killing cops, but had to skip over the part about where the singer wanted to use his gun to off a female cop.

Despite the graphic but censored reading Wednesday, an Assembly committee rejected Olberg's bill to force the state's giant pension funds to get rid of music-company stocks that glorify crime and obscenity.

The recording industry, the motion-picture industry and the pension funds themselves argued that the bill would put government in the position of deciding what music is bad and what is good. That's a clear violation of the First Amendment, they said.

Olberg, R-Victorville, said his bill doesn't stop the music industry from producing, marketing or selling any song. He said First Amendment claims are cloaked attempts to force pension funds to maintain their investments in the music industry.

“I think that's hogwash. I debunked the First Amendment argument in committee three weeks ago, and I debunked it in committee today and in dozens of interviews,” Olberg said. “Let met say that I would not carry a bill that would infringe on First Amendment issues. That's not my gig.”

The bill received two votes in the seven-member Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security Committee. Olberg's bill would have prohibited state retirement funds from making any new investments after next Jan. 1 in firms producing music with lyrics that promote specified crimes. Those crimes include murder, rape, arson, kidnapping, drug possession, obscenity and domestic violence.

The funds would have to start selling off pre-existing holdings beginning in 2000. The state's two largest pension funds—the California Public Employees Retirement System and the State Teachers Retirement System—together have about 1.5 million members who are current and retired government employees and teachers. Their combined total of $205 billion in assets makes them the largest pension fund systems in the nation.

The Legislature has used the pension funds for social policy before. In 1986, it required the state to sell off its investments in firms doing business in South Africa because of the policy of apartheid, or racial separation.

Lt. Paul Curry of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department said police try to promote anti-violence activities among teens. Then the teens go home and listen to CDs advocating things officers have said is bad behavior.

“They say it's O.K. to slay a 'b'—they don't even call them a woman. They refer to women as whores. What kind of message is it to tell these kids?” he asked.

“If the cops in the state of California knew their retirement dollars were being used, in effect, to encourage this kind of activity on the streets and in the schools, there would be a violent reaction,” Olberg said. Teachers would be upset, too, he added.

Olberg said that he hopes to bring the bill back in another form later in the session.

But Joel Flatow of the Recording Industry Association of America said the committee decision sends a “strong signal” that such measures will always face strong opposition.

“We will fight what we consider backdoor censorship very forcibly,” Flatow said.