Judas Priest Verdict Offers Small Comfort to Music Industry : Ruling: Despite court victory, some observers see record companies imposing curbs on artists’ freedom of expression.


Friday’s Judas Priest verdict--which absolved the British heavy metal quintet and their record company, CBS Records, from responsibility for the suicide attempts of two Nevada youths--is being perceived by the music industry as a Pyrrhic victory at best.

Industry observers expressed concerns that the costly legal battle preceding the ruling may have intensified the debate over artistic expression. They insist that the financial burden imposed upon CBS Records by the Judas Priest product liability lawsuit is only the latest in a series of anti-rock legal challenges.

Insiders point to such varied actions as the continuing 2 Live Crew obscenity controversy, a new anti-explicit lyric performance statute in Memphis and pending legislation in New Jersey that would mandate government-sanctioned warning stickers on ‘offensive” records.

Mike Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, suggested that the Judas Priest lawsuit is likely to put a damper on in-house company decisions regarding what is considered appropriately protected artistic expression.

“Companies are starting to become very critically attuned to their liability regarding this situation,” Greene said.


He cited the establishment of in-house lyric review panels at various companies as the most recent indication of industry caution.

“People won’t admit it,” Greene said, “but taken into consideration with the controversy surrounding 2 Live Crew, I think the Judas Priest decision is going to cause artists to think twice about promoting lyrical messages that call for action, whether those messages speak to suicide or violence.”

But Gail Edwin, vice president and litigation counsel for CBS Records, disagreed. Edwin said that while the company had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending Judas Priest, she did not believe that the trial would endanger creative expression.

“The suit was certainly unfortunate, but it will not have a chilling effect on the conduct of business by CBS Records,” Edwin said. “Still, in my opinion, the plaintiffs attempted to make heavy metal music a social issue in this case. They pursued it with an evangelical fervor in which they pitted the music against what it proclaimed as Christian values.”

Danny Goldberg, chair of American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and president of Gold Mountain Entertainment, said he views the Judas Priest lawsuit as but one example of a national crusade bent on destroying free speech in entertainment.

“This has been the most absurd court room episode since the Salem witch trials,” Golberg said. “It’s not just some weird isolated incident. It is part of an escalating climate of repression.”

The impact of explicit lyrics on American youth has been called into question recently by such media watchdog organizations as the Parents Music Resource Center, Focus on the Family and the American Family Assn.

As a result, mandatory labeling legislation was introduced and defeated in more than a dozen states this year. In response to pending legislation and pressures from special interest groups, the Recording Industry Assn. of America created a standardized warning sticker to help parents identify albums containing allegedly “explicit” lyrics.

As a result, several major national retail chains have refused to carry certain “offensive” albums and other retail outlets have taken to carding customers who wish to purchase albums stickered with warning labels.

But the skirmishes in the continuing battles over explicit lyrics are not just being fought on the floors of the state legislatures.

A record by Miami rappers 2 Live Crew was declared obscene in a federal court in Ft. Lauderdale in June. Subsequently, several members of 2 Live Crew and a rock group called Too Much Joy were arrested on separate occasions for performing “obscene” material at adult concerts in Hollywood, Fla.

A new ordinance that holds promoters responsible for anything “harmful” that minors see or hear at concerts was recently passed in Memphis, Tenn. In Georgia, a variety of well-known artists--most recently Kid ‘N Play--were arrested for “suggestive” performances. Rap shows by N.W.A. and Public Enemy have been canceled or banned in a number of cities.

Police confiscated a poster of Jane’s Addiction’s new album cover at a record store in Royal Oak, Mich. on Tuesday, charging the owners of the store with a misdemeanor for displaying obscene material. Record retailers in Florida, Texas and Alabama have also been arrested for selling “obscene” material.

Last January, in response to charges of anti-Semitism and other forms of racial insensitivity and bigotry surrounding ethnic slurs in an interview with Public Enemy member Professor Griff, CBS Records chief executive Walter Yetnikoff recently sent a memo to more than 7,000 CBS employees asking for a dialogue on what the company’s policy should be in this area. The move was widely applauded by other label chiefs, some who promised to follow suit.

Under pressure from record company review boards, a number of bands have been persuaded to change lyrics and cover art. Certain heavy metal bands and rap acts have repeatedly come under fire for allegedly sexist, racist and anti-gay lyrics.

Geffen Records, whose roster includes the rock act Guns ‘N Roses, recently refused to distribute the graphically violent and sexually explicit Def American album by the Houston-based rap group the Geto Boys. Digital Audio Disc Corp., also declined to press the compact disc version of the album.

Atlantic Records, whose management publicly championed First Amendment artistic expression rights regarding its distribution of 2 Live Crew and Audio Two, reportedly pressured the heavy metal act Vio-lence to remove a song called “Torture Tactics” from its upcoming album.

Lee Ballinger, West Coast editor of Rock ‘n’ Roll Confidential, an industry newsletter which has been monitoring anti-rock incidents since 1985, applauded Judas Priest’s commitment to defending their music, but said he feared the lawsuit would probably only serve to heighten anti-rock hysteria.

“This case should teach the music industry the value of fighting back,” Ballinger said. “But unfortunately, standing up for rock ‘n’ roll is not a top priority on the corporate agenda these days.”

Ballinger said it would not surprise him if CBS and the record industry began using the costly trial as an excuse to stifle creative risk-taking.

“Clearly, the industry is looking for a place to hide,” Ballinger said. “There is no doubt in my mind that this case will cause them to burrow in even farther.”