Recording industry preparing to fight more censorship efforts

Tuesday, March 10, 1998

Shouting cries of victory over music-labeling bills in Washington and Georgia, recording industry officials promise to battle attempts to censor the music industry in at least nine other states this spring.

“We are uncompromising in our stand against censorship and will continue to work with key groups in each state to safeguard the creative works of recording artists at the federal, state and community level,” said Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

But the sponsor of the Georgia bill, narrowly defeated in the state House of Representatives on March 6, said music industry officials aren't fighting fairly. The proposed legislation made it a crime to sell to minors recordings that carried parental warning labels.

Rep. Vernon Jones, who promises the battle in Georgia isn't over, blames the defeat of his bill to the music industry unloading their “damn lawyers with their $1,500 suits and $400 shoes” upon the Georgia General Assembly.

Jones, D-Decatur, said the lobbyists came to Atlanta partly because Sony Music operates a large compact disc factory near the city. “Twelve percent of all music they sell is labeled,” he said. “They know this music is targeting children.

“They came, and they scared a lot of legislators saying if they passed this law, [the music industry] would just remove the stickers,” Jones said.

Industry officials disagree, saying they are opposed to legislation similar to Georgia's because it discourages artists from recording music they think might be later banned. They also decried measures that use the RIAA's voluntary labeling program to enforce a law.

Last month, RIAA, the Washington Music Industries Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union and other music-rights groups lobbied against a Washington House bill that lumped sound recordings into a “harmful to minors” bill along with X-rated videos. The bill likely won't clear the House before the session ends next week.

Joel Flatow, governmental affairs director for RIAA, said his group is combating a variety of music-related legislation in nine other states.

Next stop: Nashville, Tenn., a.k.a. Music City USA.

“I would love to sound the alarm on Tennessee,” said Flatow, expressing disappointment that one of the nation's music hubs is also a potential battleground for music censorship. “Bills in the House and Senate there are very similar to the Georgia bill. They define the restrictions very broadly, so we're going to take it very seriously.”

The Tennessee bill, sponsored by state Sen. Roscoe Dixon, D-Memphis, doesn't limit restricted material to just music. The bill forbids the sale or rental of any records, books, movies and other publications bearing any parental advisory notices. If passed, the bill would make such transactions a misdemeanor offense, punishable by a fine up to $2,500.

Flatow said music industry officials and civil rights groups are also targeting bills in Pennsylvania, South Dakota, California and Wisconsin which either prohibit sales of certain recordings to minors or would place them under the state's obscenity standards.

But Flatow said the most recent trend concerns divestiture laws, measures that prohibit state agencies from investing in record companies that produce music with “objectionable” lyrics.

In January, a group of Texas firefighters, teachers and law enforcement officers filed a lawsuit to challenge the state's divestiture law, saying it would severely limit the investments of the state retirement system. RIAA joined the suit, saying the law violates free expression rights by imposing sanctions on constitutionally protected speech.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Virginia, California and Wisconsin are considering their own divestiture bills.

But Jones promised that music industry officials will have to make a return visit to Georgia.

Despite the defeat of his bill, Jones said music retailers already violate a 1994 state statute that forbids the selling of pornographic material to minors. “And a lot of this stuff is audio pornography,” he said.

And he said that's not going to stop him from pushing his legislation. Jones said he plans to attach his bill as a rider to another one before the Georgia legislative session ends next week.

Flatow said the Georgia bill is not only dead, but sends a message that such bills won't be tolerated.

“Despite this being an election year and despite the seductiveness of what some have called 'faux-moral' bills, these bills need to be judged on their merits,” Flatow said. “I think Georgia shows that lawmakers see that despite those influences, they are bad ideas and bad for the state ultimately.”