Boston's Emerson College, specializing in communications, stunned free speech advocates early in October by banning, for no comprehensible reason, all but the tamest rap music from the college's once highly regarded radio station, WERS 88.9 FM.
Emerson College, whose motto is "Expression Necessary to Evolution" was founded in 1880 and calls itself "the only private four-year college in the U.S. devoted exclusively to the study of communications and the performing arts." WERS was the first college FM station, has been on the air since 1949. For years, WERS had been the only Boston-area source of rap played at night. (A local black music fan dismisses Boston's commercial black station, WILD, as "that all-commercials, restrictive playlist toy station on in the daytime.")
But now WERS's freedom and spirit has been crushed by Emerson's arrogant powers that be. James Coppersmith, Emerson Board of Trustees Chair, is a well-known conservative and a George Bush crony. According to well-placed sources, the order to banish rap came down from Coppersmith to Emerson President, Jacqueline Liebergott. Coppersmith reputedly didn't want the station playing music that appealed to "that element." (No one at Emerson has publicly discussed Coppersmith's reputed role in the banning.) Another Bush crony, William Bennett, has been fighting a holy war against rap all summer and the Emerson ban is probably no coincidence.
Liebergott (a longtime Emerson veteran who came, appropriately enough, from the Department of Communication Disorders) passed the banning order down through Arthur Barron, the new Department of Mass Communication Chair, to the station manager and faculty advisor, Fran Berger.
Berger refused to follow the order completely. According to Emerson's student paper, the Berkeley Beacon (10-5-95), she dropped the station's popular R&B show, "Crosswinds." which had aired from 2 to 6 A.M, securely within the FCC's "safe harbor," along with the latenight weekend shows, "Infushz" and "Underground 88.9. " Killing these shows deprived students of 28 hours a week of valuable air time, Berger did not, however remove all rap from "88.9 At Night," which airs from 8 to 11 PM. Instead she worked with DJ's to draw up a playlist of 40 songs that contained no "triggerwords" that might cause complaints. (In the past, DJ's could draw up their own list as long they follow FCC guidelines.)
According to a source close to Berger. She is happy with what the school is doing but finds herself in an impossible situation. She has managed the station for 15 years and is very devoted to it and to the students. Berger, nevertheless, has made alarming statements to the press. According to the Boston Tab (10-31-95), Berger dismisses knuckling under to censorship as "merely a dose of reality for students who have been used to an unusual amount of freedom." She also said, "No one is issuing mandates from above..." Unfortunately, in the same article, Liebergott admits applying the pressure to change the format.
When the press started to investigate the rap ban, Barron muddied the waters by claiming that it was due to break-ins and nighttime thefts from the studio. In the Boston Phoenix (10-27-95), he cites "a series of incidents that has occurred and if rap music in any way motivates or inspires what led to those incidents we want to look into it." He also said, "we want to make absolutely certain that nothing in the body of rap music inspires, incites either violence or sexism or hatred." (There have been no break-ins or thefts at the station for about two years.)
Nina Crowley, head of the newly formed anti-music censorship group, the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition, phoned Emerson to complain and was given to their chief spokesperson, Burt Paretsky (who used to work for Coppersmith). Paretsky told Crowley there were security problems caused by rap musicians stopping by the station to drop off tapes. He also said, "If these were folk artists, this would be a different situation." (Not surprisingly, Paretsky denies making this and other statements.)
Free-speech advocates denounced the college. John Roberts, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts said: "I think this is racist. Singling out rap music for these guidelines is unfair. What's their justification?" Nina Crowley said, "This act of censorship restricts the freedom of expression to these artists. The move also dictates artistic choices for the general public."
James D'Entremont, Director of the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression (BCFE) wrote to Barron, "No amount of brain-dead social engineering through censorship is ever going to give us a safer campus or a kinder and gentler society...For a communications director to contribute to the stifling of speech on a college campus is unconscionable." In my letter to Liebergott, on behalf of the National Writers Union, I said, "For centuries authoritarian apologists have argued that the virtuous must control speech because unfettered expression 'causes' anti-social behavior amongst the lower orders...Art, music and literature do not cause crime. Censorship is not an acceptable solution to social problems."
The protests so far are falling on deaf ears and - given Emerson's authoritarian structure and its lack of effective student and faculty government - there is little cause for optimism. Rap banning is not a major problem with college radio stations, with the exception of conservative religious schools and Grambling State University in Louisiana. But censorship is a highly contagious disease. If Emerson gets away with this, many other schools will follow suit.
Responding to racism charges, Barron tried to wiggle out by telling the Beacon that "the criteria we apply to one kind of music should be applied to all." This inspired the BCFE to send Liebergott a list of about 80 songs to ban because they might promote violence or drug use. The list included "The Star Spangled Banner," "Rum and Coca Cola," "(Throw) Mama From the Train," and "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." In their cover letter they said: "We're faxing copies of this list to some of our friends so they too can help you out by putting forth suggestions. When you're done, you'll not only have the satisfaction of having stamped out crime in Eastern Massachusetts, you'll also clear some handy storage space at 'ERS where bright young broadcast-censors-in-training will be free to stash their roller blades and stuff. And think of the marvelous vistas of storage space you create when you put the same policy into effect at Emerson's library."
Give Liebergott a piece of your mind! The address is: Emerson College, 100 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02116. Her FAX number is: 617-578-8511.
For more information or to get involved CONTACT:
Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression
Bob Chatelle or Jim D'Entremont
Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition