Wisconsin Senate considers criminalizing sale of music with warning labels

Friday, June 4, 1999

Determined to stop the music industry from peddling obscenity- and violence-laden recordings to children, a Wisconsin lawmaker last month offered a bill in the state Senate that would forbid the sale of recordings with warning labels to persons under age 18.

Introduced in the wake of the April 20 school shooting in Littleton, Colo., Senate Bill 167 would make it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine, to sell such music to minors. Bill sponsor Gary Drzewiecki, R-Pulaski, offered similar legislation last year with no success.

“Basically, Gary is concerned about the protection of children,” said Louis Schubert, spokesman for Drzewiecki. “He just feels that children, most children, aren't mature enough to handle the themes involved in some of the music.”

Schubert said “that the bill doesn't forbid adults to purchase the music nor does it restricting musicians' right to make the music.”

Music industry officials and civil liberties groups oppose bills such as SB 167 because they would give voluntary labeling, specifically the system created by the Recording Industry Association of America, the force of law. They also say such legislation would chill free expression by discouraging artists from recording music they think might later be banned.

The Wisconsin bill doesn't specifically mention the Recording Industry Association of America's parental advisory labels. It says the label could be any statement “with a warning that the recording contains explicit lyrics or a recording that has a statement with a similar warning.”

The bill would provide immunity for those sellers who require purchasers to show picture identification before buying labeled music. The bill states that the sellers may defend themselves if they show that “the appearance of the purchaser was such that an ordinary and prudent person would believe that the purchaser had attained the age of 18.”

The measure would also allow cities and municipalities to draft similar ordinances provided they conformed strictly to the provisions of the bill.

Joel Flatow, governmental affairs director for RIAA, calls the bill “a draconian measure” that tries to makes the sale of music an illegal act. He and others said the bill would severely damage the RIAA parental advisory program because music companies might drop the labels.

The Wisconsin measure comes as Congress considers legislation that would place restrictions on the entertainment industry and as President Clinton begins a new federal study on the industry. On May 31, Clinton said the $1 million joint study by the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department would examine industry marketing practices.

He said the study would review whether the video game, motion picture and recording industries purposefully market adult material to children and only laxly restrict sales to minors.

The introduction of the Wisconsin bill follows the recent passage of a bill in the Michigan state Senate that would impose advertising restrictions on concerts there. If approved by the Michigan House and governor, the measure would require parental warnings on tickets and advertising for concerts by performers whose albums have earned advisory stickers.

The Michigan Senate's 25-11 vote on May 25 to approve the bill surprised many music-rights activists, who thought the measure would fail as it had twice before. They attributed the change to reaction surrounding Littleton.

But Schubert said the bill wasn't drafted in response to Littleton but rather to Marilyn Manson performances in Wisconsin.

“This is not knee-jerk,” he said. “This is something we had done a year ago, and it's something we planned on doing months ago.”

Despite the environment created by the Littleton shootings, most entertainment-related legislation in other states stalled early in the respective legislative sessions and showed little signs of recovering. At least one measure — a North Dakota Senate bill that would have restricted the sale of certain music to minors — has already failed.

In Georgia, state Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Decatur, stalled action on his House Bill 104 — a bill similar to the one in North Dakota — after the recording industry demonstrated its efforts to discourage youngsters from purchasing labeled music.

Bills introduced early in the legislative sessions in Washington, Illinois, New York, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and South Carolina were assigned to committees but have seen no action as yet.

Although many of the bills appear dead, Flatow says he hesitates to declare any victories.

“Supporters of freedom of expression really need to be vigilant right now,” Flatow said. “They really need to work in their communities and not cave in to political expediency because of some tough, overarching issues facing the community and the nation. Short-cut, quick-fix bills attacking music are not the way to go.”