The ‘Batman’ Who Took On Rap : Obscenity: Lawyer Jack Thompson put his practice on hold to concentrate on driving 2 Live Crew out of business. In Southern Florida, he is loved and loathed.
He wears a Batman watch. He drinks from a Batman mug. A large poster of the Caped Crusader is taped to his refrigerator door.
“Batman is just a metaphor I use to explain why what I’ve done has been received so well by some people,” says Jack Thompson, the real-life crusading attorney who instigated the campaign that resulted in rap group 2 Live Crew’s “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” album being declared obscene by a federal judge. (See related article, Page 4.)
“For me,” says Thompson, standing in the kitchen of his modest suburban home here, “the appeal of the Batman lies in the fact that he was supposed to be a private citizen who was able to provide assistance to his government, a lone activist who helped authorities do a job that they seemed unable to accomplish on their own.
“To me, Luther Campbell isn’t Luke Skyywalker (a stage name he adopted but has been enjoined from using by Lucasfilm), he’s the Joker,” Thompson says. “He’s peddling obscenity to children and that is why I have to play Batman here--to assist, to cajole and to sometimes embarrass government into doing its job.”
Campbell, leader of 2 Live Crew, alleges that Thompson’s crusade against him is a result of Thompson’s bitter feelings growing out of the Coral Gables Republican’s 1988 attempt to unseat Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno, the Democrat incumbent.
“A lot of people don’t realize it, but all of this started a couple of years ago because one of my groups put out a record in favor of Janet Reno,” Campbell maintained in an interview at a sandwich shop around the corner from his new record company headquarters in Miami. “He lost the election and has been after me ever since.”
Thompson’s 1988 campaign tactics were called into question by the Miami Herald. At one rally, the Herald reported, Thompson handed Reno a letter with a prepared statement, asking her to check the appropriate box: “I, Janet Reno, am a * homosexual, * bisexual, * heterosexual.” The letter continued: “If you do not respond . . . by that date then you will be deemed to have checked one of the first two boxes.” (Reno declined to comment.)
Unlike Batman alter-ego Bruce Wayne, Thompson is no millionaire philanthropist. He is a “born-again” Christian and self-proclaimed “radical conservative Republican” who put his legal practice on hold 6 months ago to concentrate on driving Miami rap entrepreneur Campbell and his 2 Live Crew out of business.
Following a June 6 federal district court ruling declaring the group’s sexually explicit album obscene, the 38-year-old anti-pornography crusader has been vaulted into the public limelight. He’s already appeared on “Crossfire,” “Nightline,” “Donahue” and “CBS This Morning,” among others.
His successful efforts to get the album declared obscene in the Southern Florida counties of Broward, Dade and Palm Beach have triggered a national debate on First Amendment rights and the future of artistic expression in pop music. Some have hailed him as a guardian of public morality; others have condemned him as a “cultural Nazi.”
Thompson is loved and loathed throughout Southern Florida, depending on who you talk to.
Members of the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church, where Thompson teaches Sunday school and attends services regularly, speak highly of him, applaud his efforts and clearly seem to cherish his company.
But those in the cross-fire of his crusading activities criticize his tactics, distrust his motives and, on occasion, have even publicly questioned his mental competence.
Luther Campbell isn’t the first person to get in Thompson’s anti-smut sights.
Upset by the explicit content of programming by Neil Rogers, a popular shock jock on radio station WIOD-AM in Miami, Thompson complained in 1987 to the Federal Communications Commission, which subsequently leveled a $10,000 fine against the station.
Michael Disney, the station’s vice president and general manager, filed a complaint against Thompson the following year with the Florida Bar Assn. Thompson was accused of harassing WIOD-AM advertisers and Rogers. Under a settlement reached in November, 1989, Thompson was barred from talking about or coming within 500 yards of the deejay.
Thompson’s feud with Rogers--which was well publicized in Southern Florida--may cost him his right to practice law, at least temporarily. On Tuesday, the Florida bar will hold a hearing to investigate Thompson’s mental stability, which was challenged by WIOD attorneys.
“I still have a few major personality flaws to work out, but I am not crazy,” Thompson says. “I have to work on tolerance a lot, anger and impatience with God and others. Sometimes these things get me into trouble.”
Known in local Christian circles for his quick wit and feisty temperament, Thompson stands about 6 feet tall with piercing blue eyes and a shock of gray hair. An attorney who has represented a dozen sexual-abuse victims free of charge since 1985, he speaks with the confidence and authority of a champion debater--which he was in high school.
Every week, Thompson puts his speaking talents to use hosting a Sunday school video seminar before about 20 adults in a classroom adjacent to the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church, which Richard Nixon used to frequent during his presidency.
Chuck Throckmorton, a 35-year-old trademark lawyer who has known Thompson for 10 years, insists his friend is misunderstood.
“People around here who only read about Jack in the papers think he must be like the Church Lady on ‘Saturday Night Live’ or something,” Throckmorton says. “But Jack is no prude. The only think that makes Jack any different from you or me is that he publicly got mad about obscenity a few years ago and since then, he has just never backed down.”
Born July 25, 1951, in Ohio, Thompson grew up “around Cleveland,” the son of upper-middle-class conservative Republican parents. His father was a sales representative for an industrial paint firm and his mother was a homemaker.
Inspired early on by the writings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Thompson says he braved death threats when he was elected student mayor of his 3,000-student high school in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, after he campaigned for housing desegregation in that all-white community.
Graduating third in a class of 800, Thompson attended college at Dennison University in Granville, Ohio, and law school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., where he met his wife-to-be, Patricia.
They moved to Southern Florida in 1976, where he subsequently worked for Babcock Co., a subsidiary of Weyerhaeuser, as a legal counsel in real estate acquisition. He spent a year as a fund-raiser for Logoi, a Christian ministry that trains pastors for service in Latin America. He also worked for the law firm of Blackwell Walker, from which, he acknowledged, he was fired because he was considered inflexible. He and Logoi president Les Thompson (no relation) offer different versions of his departure.
“The board terminated Jack because he was stubborn,” says Les Thompson. “Personally, I liked Jack’s style a lot, but others felt he had personality problems.”
“The board of directors doesn’t have the same recollection that Les Thompson has,” Jack Thompson says. “I have nothing but the highest regard for Les Thompson and all he has done for the cause of Christianity.”
Thompson says he decided to get into the anti-obscenity business in 1985, after defending Iliana Fuster, a woman who was raped when she was 14 and whose husband threatened her life unless she participated with him in the sexual abuse of other children.
“Her case touched my heart, because this woman’s life and everyone it touched was shattered,” Thompson says. “When I started researching the problem of sexual abuse, I found that one of the causes for it was obscenity, particularly obscenity that portrays people who are sexually abused as enjoying that abuse. . . . For me, that is what the disturbing component of this 2 Live Crew album is. . . . People are always looking for some hidden agenda for my actions, but this is what has motivated me. It’s not a question of musical taste.”
The 1926 two-bedroom, two-bathroom stucco house Thompson has lived in with his wife since 1981 is furnished modestly, and includes some antique pieces he has restored himself.
The Thompsons’ CD and record collections include selections by Sinead O’Connor, Tom Petty and Frank Zappa. His bookshelf bears a copy of the Bible and Thompson’s personal secular favorite, “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers.
Sitting on a chair in his home office, Thompson says: “People ask me all the time, they say, ‘Aren’t you leading us down the slippery slope of governmental control of thought?’ And I say, ‘No way, the guy who is leading you down that slope is Luther Campbell, not me.’
“I submit the idea that there is a greater threat to freedom of expression from people who abuse it than those who assault it. I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball, but if we are headed toward more thought repression in the government and from other sources, it’s going to be because people fail to understand that there has to be some kind of rational limits to what citizens are allowed to do to each other.”
Thompson conducts his national assault against what he calls the “forces of evil” from this cramped office, a converted bedroom. His work station consists of a home computer, copier, fax machine and a speakerphone flanked by a file cabinet and a bookcase of legal texts.
He says he was introduced to the lyrics of 2 Live Crew by his best friend, Mike Thompson (no relation), a conservative talk-show host at Miami radio station WNWS. Mike Thompson had received his transcription of the “Nasty” album from the American Family Assn., the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s Tupelo, Miss.-based media watchdog group, in January.
Wildmon, in turn, received the lyrics from Robert DeMoss, a “youth culture specialist” at the Pomona-based Focus on the Family. But Thompson said he made up his mind long ago to distance his campaign from other anti-pornography forces within the Christian decency movement.
“I’m not affiliated with any group,” Jack Thompson says. “Once you take money from an organization then you get tagged with all their baggage. Anyway, I think it is sort of in the American tradition to not necessarily be a joiner. With something like this, organizational entanglements are not necessarily an asset.”
Thompson--whose tireless campaign has led reporters, friends and foes to not be surprised by relentless phone calls and faxes, some as early as 6 a.m. or as late as 11 p.m.--says his anti-smut campaign is personally financed. He insists the success he has achieved comes from the amount of determination he has invested, not dollars.
“This kind of thing doesn’t really cost a lot to operate,” he says. “It just takes the ability to not have to make money, and for the past six months I have not made any money. My wife works and is very understanding and has encouraged me to do this, because she realizes how bad things are getting.” He would not specify how much his campaign has cost him.
Thompson’s wife of 14 years, a trim corporate attorney who works for a large firm in Miami, says what Thompson does is his own business. She refuses to discuss anything about her husband’s crusade, but listens attentively as he explains his cause.
“Speaking theoretically, I think there is a cultural civil war going on,” Thompson says. “You’ve got Jesse Helms fighting against the NEA, me against Luther Campbell and then, of course, there is the American Family Assn. too.”
Of all the decency groups in America, Thompson says his approach is probably closest to that taken by the American Family Assn.
“Like Donald Wildmon, I’m kind of the foot-soldier type,” he says. “I try to get the job done at the grass-roots level.”
Thompson seems so absorbed in his mission that he can break away repeatedly from a reporter’s question to answer as many as a dozen phone calls in an hour from other reporters, and then pick up the conversation exactly where he left off.
“My job is not to win these things, but as it says in Ephesians, simply to take a stand,” he says, as if explaining his drive. “Personally, I believe the world is headed toward apocalyptic destruction as set forth in Scripture.
“As a Christian I’m bound to that belief, but in the meantime, those of us who have been given the light through the Gospel are required to tell others that there is a light and to hold out hope.
“We are required to say (there is) such a thing as right and wrong and that the laws ought to be enforced because God has inspired those laws and because he has put the world together in such a way that government exists to point people God-ward.”
Asked if he’s optimistic that he’ll be able to make a difference in what he sees as the cultural decay of the country, he responds without hesitation.
“The problem in America is that obscenity laws are just not enforced,” he says. “Whether it be with regard to pornographic art or adult book and video stores or obscene live performances, people have it in their heads that this stuff, because it is between consenting adults, is not harmful.
“My own opinion is that this nation is awaking from a slumber and I predict that there will be more prosecutions of obscenity.”
Reflecting on success he has had so far in battling against the distribution of the 2 Live Crew album, he adds, “This case is like when Einstein said ‘E=mc2.’ First he said it and then the quantum mechanic theorists came out and said, ‘We just exploded a bomb in Los Alamos and, guess what, Einstein’s equation works.’ With regard to 2 Live Crew and the psychological impact of the federal obscenity ruling in this case, the little mushroom cloud that went up in Ft. Lauderdale on June 6 has been seen everywhere in America.”