Virginia city council votes to forbid ‘pornographic’ concerts

Wednesday, March 3, 1999

The shock-rock band Marilyn Manson may have lost one of its regular venues now that the Richmond, Va., City Council has passed an ordinance criminalizing pornographic performances at which minors might be present.

No more displays of oversized, fake genitalia. No more stage presentations of songs with explicit lyrics.

The Richmond City Council passed the ordinance last week, directing the management of the city-owned Richmond Coliseum to tell performers about the rules and “to penalize any pornographic performance for minors through contract provisions and vigorous enforcement of applicable criminal laws.”

A violation of the new city law — which covers performances only on city-owned property — could bring “a substantial financial penalty,” the ordinance states.

The new ordinance defines a pornographic performance as one that contains any of the following: a display of male or female genitalia; sadistic, masochistic or violent sexual relationships; sexual relations with a child, corpse or animal; rape or incest; any sex act, including sexual intercourse.

The Richmond City Council's action is the latest example of ongoing efforts to regulate live performances, particularly those deemed “harmful to minors.” Proposals elsewhere in the nation have ranged from the development of rating systems, such as those used for movies, to outright banning of offensive acts.

In Michigan, a state senator has drafted a bill requiring parental-advisory warnings on tickets and advertisements for concerts by performers whose albums bear such stickers.

In Charlotte, N.C., last fall, a coliseum authority board rescinded threats to cancel an upcoming Marilyn Manson concert but said it would consider imposing concert ratings on future performances.

Free-speech advocates contend such government impositions on concerts amount to prior restraint on expression. They say these restrictions will cause many musicians, including those who aren't considered outrageous or pornographic, to revise their concert performances.

As drafted, the Richmond ordinance notes the First Amendment implications but says the city has the duty to balance “the right of free expression against the interest of society in protecting its children and providing for their normal maturation and emotional development.”

Councilman John A. Conrad, the ordinance's sponsor, says the new law passes constitutional muster.

“I really don't have time to tilt at all of these windmills that the ACLU puts forth,” Conrad said. “All of these things they raise are immaterial. This ordinance has been reviewed, drafted and approved by our attorneys to conform with the First Amendment.”

Conrad said he sponsored the ordinance partly in response to a 1997 Marilyn Manson concert in Richmond, a performance many residents deemed “pornographic and masochistic.”

At the time, the council passed a resolution canceling the performance but eventually withdrew it. Larry E. Chavis, then Richmond's mayor, offered Marilyn Manson money to not perform, but the band refused the payment and kept its concert date.

A publicist for the band didn't return a call.

John Woods, co-founder of Rock Out Censorship, called the new Richmond law dangerous and unenforceable.

“And it's a ridiculous law because live shows are so hard to regulate,” Woods said. “Most bands never stick to the same pattern every night. One night, they may be pretty tame, but on another night they may be different. A lot of it depends on the reaction of the audience.

“But it doesn't surprise me,” Woods said. “I think we will see a lot more of this.”