Recording industry, retailers warily eye pending state legislation

Monday, February 16, 1998

WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) – Six states are now considering restrictive legislation affecting sound recordings, and more could be on the way.

Throughout the country, state legislatures are debating new bills that target retailers who sell minors albums with parental-advisory labels. Other bills include provisions about material—including sound recordings—that could be “harmful to minors” and judged “patently offensive” when measured by local contemporary community standards.

These two types of legislation are this year’s models for the lawmakers who have been introducing such bills for more than a decade. Most of these bills, however, have been defeated by industry and grass-roots lobbying.

Yet these bills continue to be introduced each year, despite the 1985 creation of the voluntary, industrywide parental-advisory label by the Recording Industry Association of America. That decision came after high-profile industry criticism by—among others—the National Parent Teacher Association; Al Gore, then a Tennessee senator; and Gore’s wife, Tipper, one of the co-founders of the Parents’ Music Resource Center.

For example, this month Georgia lawmakers voted to pass a bill introduced by Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones out of a House committee. If passed into law, this bill would forbid a retailer from selling any sound recording with a parental-advisory label to a minor. Retailers could be subject to a fine and a misdemeanor conviction.

The bill, H.B. 1170, passed out of committee despite the testimony of key state legislative and RIAA officials, who, along with retailers, are now working to prevent the legislation being passed by the state’s House and Senate.

“The bill takes a voluntary program meant to provide guidance to parents and turns it into the basis for convicting somebody of a crime,” says Joel Flatow, the RIAA’s vice president of government affairs and artist relations. Similar bills are being introduced in state capitols:

  • In Washington state, a lawmaker has introduced a “harmful to minors” bill, described by the RIAA as overbroad and ambiguous in its definition of what constitutes sexually explicit material. The RIAA is working with an activist group, the Joint Artists and Music Promotion Political Action Committee, to combat the legislation.
  • In Tennessee, Democratic Sen. Roscoe Dixon from Memphis has introduced S.B. 3034, a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for a retailer to sell a minor “any material” that carries a parental-advisory label.
  • In Virginia, Democratic Rep. Dwight Jones from Richmond has asked the state retirement system to present a study that would consider the issue of divesting investment funds from companies that own labels which release recordings advocating the use of drugs, alcohol or violence.
  • In South Dakota, Republican Sen. Alan Aker has introduced S.B. 177, a “community standards” bill. Many conservative politicians are employing such bills to outflank federal and state obscenity laws.

    In South Dakota, for example, the provision would possibly allow as many as 373 counties and municipalities to draft their own guidelines for defining “obscenity”; these certainly might vary from the state’s definition. Confronted with so many obscenity definitions, the music industry would have no choice but to not distribute any recordings with even a hint of controversy in that marketplace.

  • In Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Thomas Armstrong of Columbia has introduced H.B. 739, also a community standards bill. The RIAA and others will present testimony at a hearing Wednesday there.

The RIAA had been expecting a spate of state skirmishes in this election year. In its efforts to lobby lawmakers, it will be working closely with local First Amendment groups and retailers, many of which are members of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers.