Without a serious disagreement among them, six jurors took only about two hours Saturday to eat lunch and then find three members of the rap group 2 Live Crew not guilty of violating obscenity laws in a nightclub concert performance.
The verdict caused an eruption of cheers from fans of the Miami-based singers who packed the courtroom, and dealt a defeat to local Sheriff Nick Navarro’s efforts to prosecute the group, whose best-selling album had been declared obscene by a federal court judge only four days before the concert.
“Our first and strongest impression was that this is political,” said juror Helena Bailie, 76, a retired sociology professor. “They were thumbing their noses back (at Broward County and Navarro).”
At issue was a June 10 concert at a Hollywood, Fla., nightclub during which the group performed four songs from the album “As Nasty as They Wanna Be.” The songs contain crude and graphic sexual language.
Had they been convicted, 2 Live Crew leader Luther (Luke) Campbell and group members Mark Ross and Christopher Wongwon could have each faced penalties of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Campbell jumped to his feet, raised his right arm and smiled when the verdicts were read. “We did overcome,” he said later.
Asked if the jury found the words offensive, Beverly Resnick, 65, said: “We found many things humorous. We looked at this as a comedy.”
The case was being closely watched as a test of 1st Amendment rights, especially by the music industry and performers.
Bruce Rogow, attorney for Campbell, said: “The message here is that the state ought to spend its money on real criminal matters. This was a farce. It was fun for me, trying this for Luther. But, from the state’s point of view it’s unconscionable.”
Assistant State Atty. Pedro Dijols said that although “we would like to have won, our lives are going to continue.”
He admitted that the state’s evidence against the group, two microcassette recordings of a concert made by undercover vice squad detectives in the Club Futura, were of poor quality, and that the detectives who attempted to interpret the tapes for the jury often seemed “stage struck--they were not relaxed.”
In fact, the noisy tapes of the concert, on which the lyrics and shouts of both the performers and the audience are heard, were often unintelligible.
What was immediately clear to jurors, however, was that the concert was not obscene, said David Garsow, 24, one of two men on the jury. “Everyday people use those words,” he said. “Maybe people ought to take a look at the obscenity law.”
Juror Susan Van Hemert, 42, a guidance counselor in the local public school system, commented on 2 Live Crew’s music: “It’s certainly not something I want to see in the malls, or out in the open. But in a 21-year-old club, sure.” She added she did not find the lyrics offensive to women, since “I took the whole thing as comedy.”
Campbell’s attorney, Rogow, said that although 1st Amendment issues were central to his defense, several weeks ago he was unsuccessful in defending a local record store owner against charges of obscenity in selling the “Nasty” album. He added that “none of these cases are groundbreaking. That’s the futility of these cases. None of this sets any precedent.”
Jay Berman, president of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, the organization that represents the nation’s major record companies, said the verdict offers small comfort to the music industry.
“Winning this particular case will do little to derail those trying to reap political benefit off the current anti-free-expression atmosphere,” Berman said by telephone from his Washington office. “We’re all glad 2 Live Crew won, but no one in the business has any illusions that the war is over. We have to keep fighting.”
Carl Freed, executive director of the North American Concert Promoters Assn., applauded the verdict as a victory for free speech.
“The decision eases some of the tensions for promoters who produce live concerts by controversial acts,” Freed said in a phone interview from New York. “Even if we, as concert promoters, do not approve of the material Mr. Campbell performs, we believe the government has no business deciding what adults can or cannot listen to.”
Jack Thompson, the Coral Gables, Fla., anti-obscenity crusader who initiated the national campaign against 2 Live Crew’s “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” album last January, blamed weak prosecution for the trial’s outcome.
“This verdict in no way diminishes the fact that Luther Campbell is guilty of distributing more than 2 million obscene albums and deserves to go to jail,” Thompson said Saturday night. “All this ruling does is send a message to law enforcement agencies around the country that they must secure better evidence and build stronger cases if they truly want to make a dent in stopping obscenity.”
Leanne Katz, executive director of the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship, cautioned against celebration.
“This verdict only serves to prove that no speaker, artist or retailer can have any idea in advance what will or will not be considered obscene,” Katz said by phone from New York. “Luther Campbell’s rights are every American’s rights. Throughout history censorship has always had one serious side effect: more censorship.”
In his closing argument Saturday, Dijols told the jury: “Rap music is not on trial. Rap music is a viable form of entertainment. Some of us like rap music. I like rap music.
“But these three men know exactly what they were doing that night. How can you say it’s not offensive when you hear things like this?”
As he and fellow prosecutor Leslie Robson have throughout the trial, Dijols then repeated the lyrics to several songs from the album that contain frequent references to explicit anal and oral sex.
“It’s common sense, ladies and gentlemen,” said Dijols. “It’s openly offensive.”
For the defense, Rogow told the jury: “The 1st Amendment does protect speech, even nasty speech. Of all the things in this world, sex is the thing all of us do. But if you don’t say it (talk about it) in quite the right way, the state says you’re in big trouble.”
Throughout the trial Rogow has argued that the black rap group was being prosecuted for both racial and political reasons. During the concert Campbell led the audience in call-and-response curses directed at Sheriff Navarro as well as Florida Gov. Bob Martinez.
In order to have convicted the three rappers, the state was required to prove that the performance appealed to prurient interests, was offensive to the average Broward County resident and lacked serious artistic literary or political value.
Since the concert included speech directed at Navarro and Martinez, Rogow said: “This concert was about as political a concert as one could find.”
Earlier in the week the defense presented a professor of literature and a music critic who testified that 2 Live Crew’s lyrics, however explicit, were serious contributions to the world of art. The state contended the songs are, in the words of Dijols “just plain simple nasty talk--that’s all it was.”
“This performance does not represent black culture,” said Dijols, who is black. “It was three men trying to exploit sexual conduct to make a buck.”
Staff writer Chuck Philips in Los Angeles contributed to this story.