A lawsuit claiming that rock singer Ozzy Osbourne's music drove an Indio teen-ager to suicide was dismissed Friday by a judge who said the suit "reads more like a novel than a legal pleading."
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John L. Cole rejected assertions that hidden lyrics in the song, "Suicide Solution," which purportedly urge listeners to "Get the gun and try it, shoot, shoot, shoot," exempt the recording from normal constitutional protections.
"We have to look very closely at the First Amendment and the chilling effect that would be had if these words were held to be accountable," Cole said.
Thomas Anderson, attorney for the parents of 19-year-old John McCollum, who shot himself in the head Oct. 26, 1984, said he would appeal Cole's dismissal ruling.
"There is no redeeming quality to these lyrics," he said. "I think this case will be heard by a jury, and when they do, Ozzy Osbourne and CBS Records will be in deep trouble."
Attorneys for CBS argued that Osbourne could not be held any more responsible for his listeners' responses than could Shakespeare for Hamlet's soliloquy, Tolstoy for Anna Karenina throwing herself under the wheels of a train or the producers of the movie "M.A.S.H." for its theme song, "Suicide Is Painless."
"If CBS and Ozzy Osbourne are held civilly liable for what is on those records, then all the rest of those works are at risk," CBS attorney William Vaughn said.
"Certainly, John McCollum was a most unfortunate young man" who may have been "particularly susceptible . . . and troubled," Vaughn acknowledged. "Does that mean that every writer is going to have to write to the lowest common denominator so as not to disturb even the most susceptible of us?"
At issue Friday was not whether the hidden lyrics really exist or whether McCollum listened to them repeatedly before shooting himself in the head with his father's gun, but whether such lyrics are protected as a matter of law under the Constitution.
The courts have traditionally held that the First Amendment's free expression guarantees are restricted when others may be harmed.
The measuring stick most often applied is whether the words are intended to incite "specific, immediate action" and are directed at a particular, identifiable group.
One of the few cases in which the First Amendment was found not to provide absolute protection involved radio disc jockey The Real Don Steele and his broadcast appeal to listeners to hurry to a certain destination in Los Angeles to win a prize.
A motorist who was injured in the subsequent traffic fiasco sued the radio station and won. The California Supreme Court upheld the award in 1975, noting that the disc jockey had continued his broadcasts even after witnessing cars careening through traffic to reach the prize.
But a state appellate court ruled in 1981 that the family of a 9-year-old girl raped with a foreign object by an assailant who had recently seen a similar attack depicted in the NBC movie "Born Innocent" was not entitled to damages. In that case, the court held that the network was not "urging listeners to act in an inherently dangerous manner."
Anderson argued that Osbourne is a cult figure who has developed a "special relationship of kinship" with his audience through his driving rhythms and first-person lyrics and thus is able to incite certain vulnerable listeners to respond to his music.