A Study in Ethics as Applied to the First Amendment Rights of Artists

Dennis P. McCann

Freedom of speech became a part of the Constitution of the United States on December 15, 1791, when the First Amendment was ratified. This amendment, one of ten included in the Bill of Rights, states in part, that..."Congress shall make no law...aridging the freedom of speech." Experience has taught us the importance of freedom of speech. Without it many new ideas would not be heard. If speech were not free we could have no democracy. Men could not criticize unjust laws and work to get them changed. There would be no use in holding elections if we could not hear the beliefs of all candidates. Freedom of Speech is a right which protects all other rights (Gelfand, 9).

Furthermore, the First Amendment exists to protect speech and activities that are unpopular. If it only served to protect that which everybody (or "the majority") agreed with, it wouldn't need to be there at all. Limiting free speech in unAmerican - without it all of our rights and liberties quickly disintegrate. That's why it's the First Amendment (Marsh, 2).

Religious authorities and other conservative elements, however, often seek to silence those who disagree with them, through various forms of censorship, thereby abridging the First Amendment. Ad hoc censorship of records is a violation of the First Amendment as well as an infringement on the rights of the artist, and should not be allowed. In this paper I will discuss the ethics and value systems of the parties involved.

From its inception, right wing fundamentalists have fought to censor Rock and Roll, which they associate with sex and antisocial behavior. For example, on September 9, 1956, The Ed Sullivan Show televised a performance of Elvis Presley from the waist up in an attempt to mollify any fears of impropriety. Despite such measures, Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, still took offense. In his review of the program's main attraction, Gould recounted Presley's burlesque-like behavior in previous television appearances and declared that the wordless singing and tongue movements, which Elvis engaged in during the Sullivan show, were disgusting and especially distasteful, at least, according to his ethical beliefs (Hibbard and Kaleialoha, 8).

Other musicians were also censored on the Sullivan show, among them The Rolling Stones (forced to change "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "Let's Spend Some Time Together') and The Doors (whose lyric "Girl we couldn't get much higher" from the song "Light My Fire" was objected to as being a reference to drug abuse). However, the Doors lead singer, Jim Morrison, sang the words as written, and the band was never invited back to the Sullivan show.

In the early 1970's, President Richard Nixon, Senator Strom Thurmond, the F.B.I., and the Immigration and Naturalization Service conspired to deport John Lennon because of the revolutionary politics espoused in his songs. Lennon believed in the sanctity of life, and wrote songs in an attempt to end the war in Vietnam. Nixon and the others found his lyrics to be "dangerous." They did not want the war to end - war is good for the economy, that is, a drafted soldier is no longer unemployed, thus lowering unemployment rates, and many jobs are created, especially in the defense industry. It can be said then, that the Nixon administration believed that the economic benefits of the war were more valuable then the sanctity of human life. Christian groups also tried to censor Lennon in 1966, after he was misquoted as saying that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. What he had actually said was that "the world today is in such a state that more people would come to see the Beatles than an appearance of Jesus Christ." Others were enraged by the cover of his 1968 album, Two Virgins, which showed him and Yoko Ono in the nude (Marsh, 45). Though nudity, long considered an art form, did not offend Lennon and Ono, it obviously offended the ethical code of the fundamentalists who sought successfully to have the cover banned in the United States.

An even more frightening censorship crusade appeared in 1985 when Tipper Gore, wife of then Democratic senator and current Vice President Albert Gore, launched an attack on rock music. Expressing outrage at the explicit sex, violence, and satanic cultism portrayed in some popular music, she organized the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) and campaigned for the labeling of rock music albums (Walker, 353). The frightening aspect of the PMRC was its proximity to the seat of power - it was comprised of the wives of 15 Senators, Congressmen and Cabinet officials and enjoyed tax-exempt status. Though the PMRC was not in itself a governmental body, these ladies certainly had influence on many top-level politicians. So much so, that their agenda eventually lead to Senate hearings - a blatant attempt to censor the artists' First Amendment rights. Allegedly attacking only "irresponsible" rock music and lobbying only for "consumer information," the PMRC, in fact, displayed a consistent Christian evangelical bias. For instance, they originally wanted record warning labels to bear an 'O" for those with "Occult" material (an infringement of religious freedom). They virtually never spoke of the positive side of the music they attacked. Notoriously deceitful with the press, the PMRC frequently claimed allies it did not have (Bruce Springsteen, the American Pediatric Association), and continually denied ties with censors further right, such as the Reverend Donald Wildmon, and many other televangelists (Marsh, 67). The PMRC tried to impose their value system on musical artists, and by doing so, the rest of the country, who are the consumers of these recordings.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with record industry executive Danny Goldberg, responded by organizing the Musical Majority, enlisting the support of top recording stars such as Tina Turner, John Cougar Mellencamp, Prince (whose Purple Rain album had set Gore into action in the first place), and the Pointer Sisters. Ira Glasser, Director of the ACLU, denounced scheduled Senate hearings on the grounds that "the government has absolutely no business conducting an inquiry into the content of published materials." A statement that obviously refers to the protections afforded artists under the First Amendment. Musician Frank Zappa emerged as Gore's leading opponent in the media battle that ensued, testifying at the Senate hearings and making it his personal crusade over the next few years, eventually releasing an album chronicling the Senate hearings. Entitled Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (Zappa started his career with a group called the Mothers of Invention), the cover of the album carried the following self-imposed warning label:


This album contains material which a truly free society would
neither fear nor suppress.

In some socially retarded areas, religious fanatics and
Ultraconservative political organizations violate your First
Amendment Rights by attempting to censor rock and roll albums.
We feel that this is un-Constitutional and un-American.

As an alternative to these government-supported programs
(designed to keep you docile and ignorant), Barking Pumpkin
is pleased to provide stimulating digital audio entertainment
for those of you who have outgrown the ordinary.

The language and concepts contained herein are GUARANTEED

This guarantee is as real as the threats of the video fundamentalists
who use attacks on rock music in their attempt to transform
America into a nation of check-mailing nincompoops (in the name of Jesus Christ).

If there is a hell, its fires wait for them, not us.

(Zappa and Occhiogrosso, 279).

This statement, which Zappa composed, clearly illustrates the ethical dilemma of recording labeling. Zappa points out that censorship is not only illegal, but also unethical, a point of view diametrically opposed to that of the PMRC. It was Zappa's point of view that parents are responsible for the information that reaches their children, not the government or anyone else.

The Senate hearings revealed the extent to which free speech principles had permeated society. Even Tipper Gore had disavowed outright censorship in favor of warning labels on albums. Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina denounced the "outrageous filth" in "porn rock" and declared that "if I could find some way constitutionally to do away with it, I would." When Gore said she did not seek federal legislation, Senator James J. Exon of Nebraska, a confessed Glenn Miller fan, asked, "What is the reason (then) for these hearings?" He accurately described them as a media event (Walker, 353).

Gore and the PMRC claimed not to be censors, calling only for..."labels so that parents can make informed decisions on what to buy for their children. We want a tool from the industry that is peddling this stuff to children, a consumer tool with which parents can make an informed decision on what to buy. What we're talking about is a sick new strain of rock music glorifying everything from forced sex to bondage to rape." This view, in which Gore called certain types of music "sick," and referred to recorded art as "this stuff," clearly showed the PMRC's value system. But should the ethical beliefs of fifteen women, never elected to office, be imposed on a country of 260 million people? Whether or not one agrees with the PMRC, an artist, under the law, can record any lyrics that he or she sees fit to publish. Cited as particularly offensive examples are Prince's "Darling Nikki" ("I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine") and Judas Priest's "Eat Me Alive," a song Gore says is about "oral sex at gunpoint" (Love, 14). Those who want to curb the Bill of Rights are often clever enough to single out the most objectionable and artless material they can find, hoping to pave the way to later assaults on the more commonplace and meritorious (Page, 33).

However, censorship isn't about intentions, its about consequences. Whether they're presented as "consumer information" or "child protection" or "public safety" (as in the refusal of civic facilities to allow certain kinds of performances to take place), regulations and activities that deny the right to speak ARE forms of censorship, no matter what name their sponsors give them (Marsh, 3).

Record labeling is de facto censorship, in that it forces artists to follow the arbitrary guidelines, or ethical codes, set up by society's watchdogs, or pay dearly for it. Major music distributors have made it clear that they will not carry albums that bear warning stickers. Musicians who produce albums that do not fit the criteria set by local censors will be shut out of the distribution system. Large retail chains such as K Mart, WalMart, Venture, Sears, and J.C. Penney have already pulled albums with warning stickers off of their shelves. Major labels won't release albums that they think might not be sold in major outlets. Independent labels are already hard-pressed to find storeowners willing to stock their products (Marsh, 43).

Who will set the criteria for the warning labels? How will the terms be defined? Most of the individuals calling for labels point to lyrics that they believe are "offensive" or "indecent," at least, according to their value systems. The Supreme Court has spent decades trying to define the much more restrictive term "obscene," and it would be nearly impossible to find any artistic material, in any medium, that doesn't offend someone's concept of decency. If strictly enforced, record-warning codes would require that almost every opera of the past three centuries bear a label. And if not strictly enforced, warning labels are even more outrageously undemocratic, unethical and ineffective (Marsh, 43).

Focusing on the lyrics raises serious questions about precedent. Song lyrics have traditionally been considered poetry, and if children or others are forbidden access to song lyrics, how long will it be before they're forbidden access to certain poems? This is no overstatement. Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," banned in 1956, was subsequently hailed as one of the finest examples of contemporary American poetry. In 1987 it was banned once again, this time by the FCC, which deemed it too "indecent" for broadcast. What about the erotic poetry of the Bible: "The Song of Solomon" (Marsh, 43)?

Unlike the PMRC, there are some watchdogs that openly advocate legislation and criminal penalties for offenders. Like other censors in the past, Jack Thompson, a Florida attorney who spearheaded the drive to have 2 Live Crew declared obscene, argued without scientific evidence that a rise in "dirty" lyrics leads to a rise in rape and other violence against women. There is no proof of that. This view does however illustrate the fact that Thompson believes his own value system to be more important than the First Amendment. In actuality, the rise in such reports of violent acts against women is more likely caused by a growing awareness of the problem and a new willingness by victims to come forward and report their victimization.

The issue of censoring lyrics was also recently raised in Maryland, where a proposed amendment to the state's obscenity law would have made it a crime to sell minors records that were deemed pornographic. But, by what systems of ethics can any artistic venture be deemed pornographic? After all, isn't artistic merit (or the lack of) determined by the ethics of the consumer? If it is, it then becomes unethical to impose any set of ethics upon them.

The proposed law, which was defeated in committee, would have imposed fines of $1,000 and jail sentences of as much as a year for retailers found in violation. At one point in the hearings on the legislation, Senate Delegate Dorothy Toth, who wrote the amendment, stated that certain Maryland record stores were already in violation of the state's existing obscenity law because of cover and promotional art they had on display (DeCurtis, 16).

In the end, there was only one notable rock music censorship prosecution. Those associated with the punk rock group The Dead Kennedys were charged with distributing material harmful to minors. The offending item was a poster included in the album Frankenchrist that depicted disembodied sex acts by various animals (the painting by H.R. Giger had been publicly displayed long before being issued with the album). The prosecution came when a fourteen-year-old San Fernando Valley (CA) girl brought charges against the lead singer of the group, the record store that sold it, and the record company. The Southern California ACLU assisted in the defense, and the trial ended in a verdict of not guilty (Walker, 353).

In 1989, state representatives - like Jean Dixon, 41, from Springfield, Missouri, a fan of Christian music, and Ron Gamble, 57, from Oakdale, Pennsylvannia - pushed for laws in nearly twenty states that would make it a criminal offense for certain records to be sold without a warning label and that, in some states, would make it a crime to sell labelled records to minors (Goldberg, 19).

If passed into law, this or any such legislation will produce restrictions on artistic freedom. Forcing record companies and retailers to distribute only "safe" material can be seen as a direct threat to the First Amendment, allowing artists to record only what is deemed "acceptable" or lose their recording contracts and distribution rights, and in effect, their livelihood. It is not the "objectionable" material that should be banned, but the efforts of those who would censor art because it violates their personal code of ethics.


DeCurtis, Anthony. "Record Companies Finesse PMRC." Rolling Stone 8 May 1986: 16.

Gelfand, Ravina. The Freedom of Speech in America. Minneapolis, Lerner Publications, 1967.

Goldberg, Michael. "At a Loss for Words." Rolling Stone 31 May 1990: 19-22.

Hanson, Jarice and Alison Alexander. Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Mass Media and Society. Guilford, Connecticut: The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., 1991.

"Hearing before the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation," U.S. Senate, 99th Congress: September 19, 1985.

Hibbard, Don J. and Carol Kaleialoha. The Role of Rock. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.

Limburg, Val E. Electronic Media Ethics. Newton, MA, Butterworth-Heinemann: 1994.

Love, Robert. "Furor Over Rock Lyrics Intensifies." Rolling Stone 12 Sept 1985: 14.

Marsh, Dave. 50 Ways to Fight Censorship. New York,: Thunder's Mouth Press: 1991.

Page, Clarence. Censorship - Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc, 1990.

Walker, Samuel. In Defense of American Liberties, A History of the ACLU. New York: , Oxford University Press, Inc., 1990.

Zappa, Frank and Peter Occhiogrosso. The Real Frank Zappa Book. New York:, Poseidon Press 1989.