Music lyrics blamed for school shooting

Wednesday, June 17, 1998

WASHINGTON — Debbie Pelley, a 7th-grade teacher at Westside Middle School
in Jonesboro, Ark., told the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday that
violent rap music may have played a big part in the ambush at her school
earlier this year that left four students and one teacher dead.

One of Pelley's students was Mitchell Johnson, 13, the older of two Westside
students accused of luring teachers and classmates out of the school with a
false fire alarm, then shooting them down from nearby woods on March 24.

Pelley, who escaped injury when a bullet lodged in her purse, testified that
students told her that TuPac Shakur and Bone Thugs 'N Harmony were Mitchell
Johnson's favorite musical groups. She said he brought the music to school
and had been listening to it constantly before the shooting, including
lyrics “about coming to school and killing all the kids.”

“I believe the message coming out of the tragedy in our school … is that
even the good schools and responsible families can no longer protect their
children from our society,” she testified. “Violent music is only one
aspect of our culture but a very significant one that seems to have gotten
very little attention in the recent school tragedies.”

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said Pelley's testimony reaffirmed his
belief that the Recording Industry Association of America needed to
reevaluate its labeling system. Lieberman said the industry association
should consider expanding its system to provide consumers and retailers with
the specific lyrics to assist them in judgment calls on buying and

“Ultimately, my hope is that we can convince the nation's major corporate
producers and distributors — Sony, Seagram, EMI, Time Warner — to draw
some lines and to stop profiting from music that is so repulsive that no
newspaper in America would reprint the lyrics,” he said.

But Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry
Association of America, said lawmakers were using the school
shooting as an excuse for censorship. During a news conference
before the hearing, Rosen referred to a media profile of Mitchell
that mentioned his active participation in his Baptist church and

“Nothing in that music made a troubled young child commit that
crime,” Rosen said.

One hearing witness told the committee that the music industry's labeling of
sexually explicit and violent rock lyrics is encouraging, not deterring, the
purchase of albums by America's youth.

Charles Gilreath, publisher of Entertainment Monitor, which tracks
the labeling issue, said parental advisory stickers — once touted as the
way to inform parents and protect children while preserving the free-speech
rights of music writers — actually are a turn-on for some adolescents.

“The irony is that the kids who do know what these labels mean treat them
like a badge of honor,” he said.

Gilreath said the billion-dollar music industry had targeted America's
children with “shock” language. “Industry sales reports show that rap and
hard rock sells to younger teens,
and has little appeal to adults,” he said. “Most marketing directors, let
alone psychologists, agree that the more profane, base and exploitative
messages appeal to the younger and more immature minds.”

Barbara Wyatt, president of the Parents' Resource Center on Music Lyrics,
said voluntary labeling, which has been controlled by the music industry for
13 years, tells parents very little about what lyrics say.

“We know more what is in a jar of pickles than we know about the contents
of the music being sold to our children,” she said. “The problem is that
many recordings which should be labeled are not, and often the labels are
not very obvious.”

Wyatt also said the music industry encourages artists to capitalize on “the
bizarre, obscene and corrupt messages” in rock lyrics that most parents
would find objectionable if only they knew what their children were

“The First Amendment was not written to provide (a) license to corrupt
children. We are not asking for legislation, but we are asking for
cooperation within the industry,” she said.

But the American Civil Liberties Union, in written testimony submitted to
the panel, warned Congress against overstepping legal boundaries in its
quest for change in the music industry.

Solange Bitol of the ACLU said government-sponsored or -assisted efforts
against offensive
lyrics strike at the heart of constitutionally protected liberty of

“No one doubts that the Constitution forbids government from restricting
access to or labeling books that are sold in the mainstream,” she said.
receives precisely the same constitutional protection.”

Bitol said the music-lyrics controversy, as in all classic First
Amendment disputes, is over what some people believe to be dangerous

“Yet above all else, the First Amendment means that government has no power
to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject
or its content,” she said.

But 45 national and state organizations organized by the Free Congress
Foundation, a conservative think-tank, submitted testimony alleging the
industry had “consistently failed” to label music properly.

“The issue is not one of taste,” said Thomas Jipping, director of the
foundation's center for law and democracy. “It is about harm — and the
industry must take responsibility for its products.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told witnesses that Congress was limited in how
much it can do to correct the problems. “We obviously walk a fine line on
intruding on the First Amendment,” she said.

The committee is chaired by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who sought the
hearing. He told participants that he only wanted the meeting to be
“informational and investigative,” but he expressed concern that the music
industry was
marketing its most violent and sexist music to teens.

“While industry executives assert that children are protected
from this music, much evidence suggests that most hyper-violent
albums are bought by children. There don't seem to be many Marilyn
Manson fans over the age of 20,” he said, referring to the shock
rocker whose lyrics have been blamed for influencing the suicide of
at least one teen-ager.

Krist Novoselic, the former bassist for the band Nirvana, said
lawmakers shouldn't base their opinions on one example of tragedy.

“There are millions of children or young people in the United
States who hear those same lyrics and aren't compelled to kill
themselves,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


  • Senate to hear testimony on
    violent lyrics, parental advisory labels