FATE OF OBSCENITY BILL HANGS IN THE BALANCE

By: Steven P. Wheeler


Bill's author gives ultimatum to RIAA and NARM, as both organizations attempt to avoid government intervention on this hot issue.

Harrisburg, PA -- This past February, the Pennsylvania Judiciary Committee passed a bill (HB 377) that would criminalize the sales of Parental Advisory-stickered recordings to minors who are not accompanied by an adult.

Pennsylvania State Representative Terence J. Rooney first made waves last June when he introduced a similar bill (HB 2982) that was passed through the Judiciary Committee, only to die in the Appropriations Committee as the sessions ended last November.

In January, Rooney introduced HB 377, which, like its predecessor, would impose fines on record retailers for selling CDs, cassettes and albums containing Parental Advisory stickers to minors. In addition, minors caught buying these recordings could be sentenced to 25 hours of community service.

After the bill passed the Judiciary Committee on February 28, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) met with the Democratic state representative in an attempt to reach a non-legislative solution.

The controversial bill is currently pending in the Appropriations Committee, according to Paul Russinoff, Director of State Relations for the RIAA, who sat down with the politician twice last month.

"We've had two productive meetings with Rooney," Russinoff recently told MC, "and we've found some common ground. I think we will be able to report a favorable result that we are comfortable with and that he is comfortable with."

However, Rooney is not as confident at the present time. "After the bill was passed to the Appropriations Committee," he told MC, "I agreed to meet with the RIAA and NARM, and at that point I offered an alternative solution, which was to have NARM post signs in their member's stores saying: 'We won't sell labeled recordings to persons under the age of sixteen, unless accompanied by an adult."

"NARM has informed me that their retailers already have some form of restrictive sales policies in place," explained Rooney. "So I presented this alternative, and they came back to me and said, 'Listen, we want to do something. We understand that anything we do in Pennsylvania will have national and, in some cases, international implications, but we're asking you to hold the bill, and we will form a task force to look at the issue.'"

"In trying to achieve a non-governmental resolution," continued Rooney, "as well as having the opportunity to impact policy in not only Pennsylvania but throughout the country, I agreed to do that."

The RIAA's Russinoff said that the series of meetings with Rooney occurred after the recent NARM Convention. "While we were at NARM, we learned that 100 percent of the NARM members in Pennsylvania had 'restricted sales' policies on Parental Advisory material."

Since the landmark Congressional Hearings in 1985--when the RIAA first agreed to police itself in regard to labeling controversial recordings with a Parental Advisory sticker--the RIAA has gradually softened its stance.

Russinoff said, "The RIAA no longer opposes individual record retailers responding to a particular community's attitude toward 'labeled' products."

It was this knowledge that bolstered their contention that there is no further need for state-imposed legislation. "We wanted to get a dialog underway with Representative Rooney to point these facts out," stated Russinoff, "and to find other ways to enhance the voluntary and independent decisions of retailers, and that's what we're looking at."

Yet Rooney said that he now has serious reservations about the commitment of the music industry factions. "I have met with them, and Paul [Russinoff] is a very honorable gentleman, and my intention all along has been to have a non-governmental resolution to this issue.

"I was prepared to make an announcement to that effect, but I still don't have a commitment from NARM that they will do that. They tell me that they have 100 percent compliance in terms of their Pennsylvania retailers, but I'm looking for a formalized resolution. I want a public policy like the motion picture industry association has voluntarily put forward. But at this point, they are unwilling to make that commitment."

Rooney seemed less willing to delay, feeling that the industry seems to be hoping that stalling will ultimately kill the bill. "I've got the votes in the House and the Senate to pass this bill. What I'm asking them to do is to live up to everything they have told me up to this point. If they do that, we have something to talk about. If they don't, we're going to run the bill."

In a show of good faith, Rooney asked the majority leader to hold off action on HB 377, hoping things will be worked out without legislative interference.

Yet the clock is ticking and Rooney is now prepared to play hardball, setting a strict deadline. "I want them to say, 'We're going to form a task force, you're going to participate in that task force and we're going to work toward a resolution that doesn't involve government.' That's what I want them to say, and that's what they've told me they're willing to do. But they're not willing to do it publicly or say it publicly.

"I believe them to be honorable and decent people," continued the outspoken politician, "and I suspect they'll live up to their word. If not, we'll move this bill in the next couple of weeks. I'm not going to keep extending this thing. I've extended deadlines and bent over backwards to try and accommodate their interests and concerns for so long that I look like Gumby. I'm just not going to do it anymore."

With the legislature out of session until April 18, the earliest that a vote on HB 377 could take place is April 24th. However, Rooney isn't about to extend his deadline any longer.

"All I've heard from NARM is that they've got a board and they have policies on how these things are handled. All I know is that when this bill came out, there was an unequivocal statement from NARM saying, 'We think the bill stinks,' so I don't understand why they aren't taking this opportunity to work it out to our mutual satisfaction.

"They can get on the phone and have a conference call or get their board members together or do whatever the hell their bi-laws say they have to do to give the people of Pennsylvania a commitment that they're going to address this issue and not just blow smoke up my ass. God made the world in seven days, they can certainly pick up the phone and get their people to commit to something that they say they already do and what they say they want to do. There's going to be a resolution soon, one way or another."

Steven P. Wheeler is a writer for MUSIC CONNECTION MAGAZINE. This article is reprinted from their April '95 issue.

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