AN OVERVIEW OF THE WASHINGTON EROTIC MUSIC LAW

By: Grant Alden


WELL, WE LOST FRIDAY March 20, Washington State Governor Booth Gardner signed into law HB 2554, an ill-conceived bill which seeks to protect minors from purchasing "erotic" music.

The rant which follows is intended to begin work to unhorse those who sponsored HB 2554, to chastise those who blindly followed, to prepare for the lengthy--and expensive--process of overturning the law if and when it is invoked by a prosecutor, and to build firm resolve not to let such idiocy be repeated. Our sad story is offered to readers in Oregon and elsewhere as a cautionary tale.

Briefly, HB 2554 amends a 1969 anti-pornography statute to include "sound recordings" among categories of merchandise which may not be sold to anyone under 18 if the work is found to be erotic by a court. County prosecuting attorneys must petition the courts (which then have five days to decide) for a determination that material in question meets the statute's definition of "erotic." That definition reads: "material, the dominant theme of which taken as a whole appeals to the prurient [as in abnormal] interest of minors in sex; which is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards relating to the depiction or representation of sexual matters or sado-masochistic abuse; and is utterly without redeeming social value."

Sound recordings found by the court to be "erotic" must then be stickered in three-quarter-inch bold type "Adults Only." Clerks who mistakenly sell such material--assuming stores elect to carry it after this labeling--are subject to a fine of up to $500, or up to six months imprisonment for a first offense.

This legislation was brought to the Washington State Legislature by an Everett woman whose 12-year-old acquired a 2 Live Crew tape, and whose four-year-old began asking the definitions of words the rap group employs frequently.

A number of things are wrong with HB 2554.

First, the uncomfortable questions of one child do not indicate the existence of a wide-spread problem demanding legislative intervention.

Second, this is principally a parenting problem, not an issue for governmental review. If parents aren't monitoring what their children eat, watch on TV, read, and buy at the mall, they're not doing their job. No law will change that.

Third, I can think of no lyrics (and let's not pretend the Legislature actually listened to any of the music) capable of stimulating sexual arousal (enhancing, yes)--and I've listened to a lot of music. And if what we're really talking about here is meeting some mythical standard of community morality, well, then, we'd better go after all the cheating songs in country music, too.

Fourth, most of the lyrics being circulated on the floor of the Legislature (and I'd love to have a copy of that document, if anyone out there has it) were violent and often sexually explicit (particularly when excerpted, that is, taken out of context), not erotic. Let's remember that rape, for example, is a crime of violence, not a sexual act. Consequently, by the definitions of HB 2554, the very lyrics these legislators found troubling would not be covered.

Fifth, the word this four-year old learned from listening to 2 Live Crew is also in Chaucer, it's written on walls in bathrooms, it's spoken by angry drivers in traffic jams, it's yelled by teenagers walking down the street. Legislating against music--which is a mirror of society--will not protect children from exposure to unpleasant facts of life.

Sixth, if this kind of legislation can be passed in Washington, where musicians (and others) have been free to create art which challenged the boundaries of the form, music which has become world famous, similar and even more restrictive laws can be passed elsewhere. It was particularly galling to hear one legislator comment that he felt the First Amendment had been taken too far.

Seventh, artists ought never to be in the position of having to guess if their work will meet standards of censorship; it destroys the creative process, demeans the art and undermines the democratic process. Furthermore, the simple existence of this regulation here and elsewhere cannot help but give retailers and major labels pause when deciding whether to stock or release controversial work. Any kind of controversial work. And remember that a huge segment of the music buying public is under 18.

Eighth, and make no mistake about this, there is (as Sir Mix-A-Lot pointed out) a significant racial component to this legislation. We are talking principally about restricting the sale of rap music, which is primarily composed and performed by people of African-American descent. And rap is not an art form most legislators are competent to discuss (nor is heavy metal, the other offending genre).

And lastly, as C/Z Records' Daniel House noted, when did "erotic" become an evil, undesirable word?

But the most disturbing aspect of this legislation is the ease with which it passed. Nobody spoke against it in hearings--but, then, nobody was asked. Oh, excuse me, Dick Hemsted of the RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America, the national music industry association) testified blandly that, as the Seattle Times paraphrased it, "he's confident few entertainers will actually see their music hauled into Washington courts..." Thanks, Dick, but just what the hell were you thinking?

And so HB 2554 passed without opposition in the State House of Representatives, largely because it was shuffled through during the end of the session, clothed as a child pornography bill; a few Senators bothered to consider the implications of the law, but it still swept through. It also sailed past the local music business, busy dealing with the sudden notoriety of the Seattle sound; none of us paid any attention to HB 2554 because it seemed wildly improbable that such nonsense could even emerge from committee.

And so at the last minute it fell principally to C/Z Records' Barbara Dollarhide, and a few others (including her boss, Daniel), to organize opposition. With no money, no mechanism for action, and very little time, Barbara organized an informational forum at the OK Hotel, a FAX and letter campaign to the Governor's office, imploring him to veto this idiocy, and two demonstrations widely reported (by MTV, but not, curiously, by the Seattle Times, which to the best of my knowledge never made mention of organized opposition to HB 2554 until the bill was signed), one on the steps of the State Capital and one at Westlake Center.

She--we--tried to impress upon the governor that there was opposition to the bill, that it is bad, poorly considered legislation, that it is an embarrassment given the sudden prominence of Seattle music in the national media, and that it ought to be vetoed.

Evidently we failed.

Eternal vigilance, as the cliche goes, is the price of freedom.

Very well, if it's going to fall to us--by which I mean you readers, by which I mean we who listen to music, by which I mean all opposed to censorship in its myriad forms--we need to do a better job of watching. Here are your tasks.

First, register to vote. I know it's a cliche, and I'm certain voting only encourages the bastards. I also know that young people--music listeners--are chronically under-registered, which means legislators feel free to dump on us with impunity. If we don't vote, we can't hurt them. You would do well to quiz your local representative on HB 2554 the next time they ask for your vote. You would do even better to vote and campaign against those who sponsored the legislation--Reps. King, Padden, Scott, Casada, Paris, Pruitt, Brough, Belcher, Rasmussen and Nealey. (And you would do equally well to support Sen. Phil Talmadge, who fought to stop HB 2554.)

Second, pay close attention to what your elected representatives are up to. It was the late Maxine Cushing Gray's contention that public bodies need to know the public is watching, and, as always, she was right.

Third, when this kind of nonsense emerges again, be prepared to act to stop it. Among other things, that means jumping on the media and demanding answers. It also means calling your friends and letting them know what's up.

You will understand that this entire affair makes me extremely angry. People who write for a living (or create any kind of art) tend to take the First Amendment very personally. But mostly I am disappointed that it fell to Barbara Dollarhide, who is supposed to be flogging Treepeople records to college radio folks, to organize opposition to HB 2554.

I had thought, five years ago when it was formed, that NAMA (the Northwest Area Music Association) was created to provide a mechanism for dealing with legislation that impacted the local music community. As it was, NAMA President Ed Beeson--to his credit--had to come to a hastily organized forum at the OK Hotel to find out about HB 2554. And, Barbara tells me, when it came time for NAMA's Board to vote to oppose the bill, it took considerable persuasion to convince them this wasn't a partisan issue and that they should be involved. So far as I can tell, that vote was the beginning and end of NAMA's organized resistance to HB 2554, though individual members devoted time and resources. The only support we got in organizing public opposition to the bill came from the ACLU.

If NAMA is incapable--or unwilling--to be a lobbying force for the local music industry, perhaps some other mechanism need be invented to do the job.

HB 2554 is a colossal embarrassment to all of us. It shouldn't have happened, and right-wing attempts to limit freedom of expression will not stop with this legislation.

Your ideas are actively solicited.

--Grant Alden

FOR MORE INFO OR TO GET INVOLVED CONTACT:

WASHINGTON MUSIC INDUSTRY COALITION
300 Lenora St. #P120, Seattle, WA 92121
PH. 206-441-0875

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