A War on Many Fronts : Censorship: 1990 was the year that ‘free expression’ ran head-on into ‘moral concern.’ But the conflict may only be beginning.
The doorbell rings.
You open the door.
Standing on your front porch are six FBI agents and plainclothes police officers with guns and badges. They force their way into your apartment and begin canvassing the place, observing everything you own.
Your address books.
The art on your walls.
Every page of your personal diaries.
According to fine-art photographer Jock Sturges, that is exactly what happened to him.
“It was a nightmare straight out of George Orwell,” said the 43-year-old San Francisco artist, whose portraits of nude families appear in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
“It was like Big Brother in the flesh.”
The agents left but returned with a search warrant claiming that photographs of “partially disrobed juveniles” in Sturges’ possession might violate child pornography laws. Then they turned his apartment upside down, stuffed most everything he owned into a van and drove off.
Sturges, who, after eight months, has yet to be charged with a crime, believes his horror story provides hard evidence of what he calls a “government-sanctioned crackdown” against free expression in the United States.
“Anybody who thinks the authorities are spending millions on my case just to put one small photographer out of commission better think again,” Sturges said. “What the government is trying to do with my case is establish a new precedent in tolerable repressive behavior regarding art and morality.”
Sturges isn’t the only one insisting that censorship is on the rise. First Amendment monitors from Hollywood to Capitol Hill are alarmed over what they see as a dramatic upsurge in attempts to restrict artistic expression this year.
“I think things are going to get a lot worse,” said David Horowitz, chairman of the conservative Los Angeles-based Committee on Media Integrity. “Not necessarily because I believe there is some tyrannical government crackdown on creativity, but because I see deep divisions in the culture itself.”
Left wing. Right wing. Church and state. This year, the cultural chasm deepened. Next year, the battle promises to broaden to new fronts.
Rock-lyric legislation. Art-related obscenity trials. Anti-"smut” consumer boycotts. Congressional clashes over government-assisted theater, dance, visual and performance art.
Conservative groups, such as the Pomona-based Focus on the Family, the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Assn. and the Virginia Beach, Va.-based Christian Broadcasting Network, are mobilizing to put an end to what they view as indecent entertainment.
Enlisting the aid of government authorities at the local, state and federal levels, an ever-widening coalition of “pro-family” activists have put the arts community on notice that they intend to explore new creative tactics in their fight to squelch obscenity.
“I believe with all my heart that a culture defines itself by the limits it sets for its people,” said Jean Dixon, the former Missouri state representative whose 1989 lyrics-label bill inspired legislators in 18 states to draft similar proposals this year. “If corporations who create degrading entertainment can’t police themselves, then I think it’s government’s role to put the country back on course.”
Tempers flared in Congress last session as conservative lawmakers sought to abolish taxpayer support for what they called obscene and blasphemous exhibitions by such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.
Despite attempts by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts, Congress approved a $174-million budget for the government’s primary arts agency.
Still, NEA chairman John E. Frohnmayer’s unprecedented string of grant denials in 1990 made blood boil in the arts community.
Frohnmayer’s rejections appeared to be aimed at artists whose work dealt directly with issues of sexual politics. Denials of grants to gay artists Holly Hughes, John Fleck and Tim Miller and feminist artist Karen Finley--whose performances have included smearing chocolate and alfalfa sprouts on her body--spurred a wave of criticism that generated wide media coverage.
Time magazine’s art critic, Robert Hughes, believes the grant denials brought out the worst in both camps.
“As much as I oppose Sen. Jesse Helms and his conservative crusade to crush government funding of the arts, I am sick to death of listening to Karen Finley and all these media-grabbing artists, with their peevish sense of entitlement, whining about how the government cut off their grant as if someone had just hacked off their bloody leg.”
But not everyone in the arts community was looking for a handout in 1990. A new clause introduced by Frohnmayer prohibiting grantees from creating “obscene” work with NEA funds sparked more than three dozen grant rejections by major artists or arts institutions. At least four lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the “anti-obscenity oath” have already been filed.
But if 1990 taught artists anything, they learned that future skirmishes will not just be waged on the floors of Congress.
In February, then-Gov. Bob Martinez of Florida called for a state probe into the possibility of prosecuting the raunchy Miami rap group 2 Live Crew for violation of obscenity and racketeering codes. Whatever the connection, the group’s sexually explicit “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” album had soon earned the dubious honor of becoming the first popular music recording to be declared obscene. A number of 2 Live Crew-related obscenity cases are pending in Florida, South Carolina and Canada.
The financial repercussions of April’s indictment of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and its director on obscenity and child pornography charges are likely to reverberate through the art world for years to come. Exonerated of guilt in a jury trial, director Dennis Barrie and the institution incurred more than $300,000 in court-related costs.
As a result of the negative publicity associated with the trial, corporate donations to the arts--once considered a respectable tax writeoff--are now viewed by many as risky investments laden with public-relations problems.
“The artists didn’t make the arts controversial,” Barrie told The Times in November. “The politicians made the arts controversial. I think corporate dollars will shrink as well.”
Companies who produce and distribute popular music are getting cold feet, too.
The threat of mandatory warning-label bills forced trade groups representing the nation’s major record companies and retail chains to introduce a standardized parental-advisory sticker to be attached to albums with explicit lyrics. While many in the music business believe the advisory notice stigmatizes controversial recordings, others are calling for similar labels for explicit music videos.
When MTV, the cable music channel that regularly runs biting anti-censorship public service clips, refused to air Madonna’s racy “Justify My Love” video a few weeks ago, the network may have helped pave the way for even broader labeling. Legislators in about a dozen states are preparing stiff mandatory-labeling bills targeting rock music and videos in 1991.
Live music may also be on the endangered-species list. Concert promoters worry that city governments may follow the lead of the Memphis City Council, which recently passed the country’s most stringent concert-content ordinance--a law under which any parent, performer, promoter or venue owner who knowingly exposes a minor to “harmful material” during a concert may be arrested.
Fearing consumer boycotts and prosecution under obscenity ordinances, many record-store owners removed questionable product from their shelves in 1990 and discontinued selling records with warning labels to anyone younger than 18. Most of the nation’s major retail chains--including the 814-store Musicland Stores Group, the 450-store Trans World Corp., the 142-store Sound Warehouse and the 140-store WaxWorks--are expected to continue to operate under such policies next year.
Whether merchants will follow Wal-Mart, the 1,531-store Arkansas-based retail chain that introduced its own “banned and restricted” list of audio and video products in 1990, only time will tell.
Obscenity charges filed against rappers and “subliminal message” product-liability lawsuits brought against heavy metal bands in 1990 convinced several major record companies to install “lyric review” panels this fall. Many rock fans expect corporate fears of litigation to cramp creativity in the decade ahead.
A new, vaguely worded mall lease that surfaced this fall at a WaxWorks outlet in Kentucky seems to indicate the emergence of a more insidious form of censorship. WaxWorks president Terry Woodward fears the language in the lease will prohibit mall tenants from selling any record or music video bearing an “explicit” warning sticker.
“I have a fear that mall developers may eventually decide to include records with warning stickers in the same category with X-rated movies,” Woodward said. “This could make retailing a nightmare in the future.”
Mike Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, said the crusade to equate hard-core pornography with abstract artistic expression will continue to pose problems for the entertainment industry in 1991. “It can only get worse. The art obscenity controversy is just too sexy an issue for some officials to keep their hands off.”
Robert Bork, the conservative jurist who was denied confirmation for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987, sees no solution to the morality battle: “Personally, I believe the culture is more divided on these matters than ever before. I don’t think either side is about to compromise next year or anytime in the near future.”
Recently, the Supreme Court let stand the racketeering conviction of a Virginia couple that allowed the seizure, for selling $105 worth of “obscene” material, of their three adult bookstores and nine adult-video rental shops. Last fall, the FBI conducted pornography raids on at least 30 Southern California adult-video manufacturers and distributors. No charges have been filed.
Escalation of government action on the obscenity front has increased speculation among legal observers that the Justice Department may soon expand the use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to go after art galleries, record companies and retailers who distribute or display controversial art and music.
Some critics believe the Justice Department could also use the Child Protection and Enforcement Act to confiscate the assets of entertainment companies and their employees for distributing “obscene” materials.
But U.S. Justice Department spokesman Doug Tillett insists the agency is only out to target major producers and distributors of hard-core pornography and obscenity, although it is the same federal body that is conducting the aforementioned investigation of photographer Jock Sturges.
“We had nothing to do with the Mapplethorpe or the 2 Live Crew trials,” Tillett said. “I’m not saying that if such a case landed here we wouldn’t get involved, but I think it’s a giant leap to suggest that we are going to start perusing the lyrics of record albums trying to bring action against record companies or neighborhood video stores.”
Last year, however, Priority Records received a letter from the FBI, an arm of the agency, expressing concern that the lyrics to a song by Los Angeles’ rappers N.W.A encouraged violence against police.
“We aren’t crusaders,” Tillett said. “Everything we investigate is the direct result of a citizen complaint.”
Citizen complaints caused the Federal Communications Commission to reinstate a 24-hour ban on “indecent” radio and television broadcasts last summer, an action that is likely to restrict controversial programming available to adult audiences in 1991.
Citizens have also begun channeling their complaints into powerful boycotts aimed at crippling the corporations whose advertisements underwrite what they consider to be indecent entertainment.
CLeaR TV--a coalition of 1,600 Christian leaders who claim a constituency of 50 million believers--recently mounted a successful two-month boycott against Burger King, targeting the fast-food chain for sponsoring shows promoting “sex, violence, profanity and anti-Christian bigotry” on network television.
After meeting with CLeaR-TV founder Rev. Donald Wildmon, Burger King ran a half-page advertisement in several hundred newspapers pledging to sponsor only programs supporting “traditional family values.” “We hope,” said the reverend, “other advertisers will follow the lead of Burger King.”
Decency groups say they also intend to take on the film industry in 1991. The Motion Picture Assn. of America’s new NC-17 movie rating has already been targeted for attack in Florida, Texas, Maine and California.
People for the American Way, a Washington-based First Amendment media-watchdog organization, reports that moral-concerns groups are also pressuring public schools and libraries, attempting to ban a wide range of books, including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Other political groups are beginning to think in terms of boycotts as well.
The National Organization for Women recently called for a boycott of bookstores intending to sell Bret Easton Ellis’ violent new novel “American Psycho,” about a misogynistic serial killer. Gay-rights groups, who mounted successful boycotts of artists promoting anti-homosexual bigotry in 1990, also intend to turn up the heat next year.
Rock and Roll Confidential, the music-industry newsletter that initiated a counterattack against what it calls “anti-rock censorship,” is staging a series of rallies around the country to teach rock fans how to carry out a consumer boycott.
Tipper Gore, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Parents Music Resource Center, said that as the free-speech battle diversifies, special-interest groups on both sides of the political spectrum will begin to “just say no” to objectionable art.
“In the future, I think we’ll see more individuals who oppose censorship begin to exercise their free-speech rights to speak out against degrading lyrics simply because degradation in any form is unhealthy,” Gore said. “In 1991, the debate on lyrics that encourage violence against women, racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry and gay-bashing will continue.”
First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams applauds the boycott as a positive approach to the free-speech battle.
“I think the picket line is a healthy direction to go in,” Abrams said. “Boycotts have their dangers, but at least they are less threatening to First Amendment rights.”
But Time magazine’s Hughes cautions that ethical quibbling over semantics--what Newsweek dubs “politically correct” speech--could turn out to be the most sinister form of censorship.
“The conservative censorship we saw at work this year in the battle over the arts is certainly loathsome, but I believe that liberal censorship may pose one of the biggest impediments to free speech in the future,” Hughes said.
“The ‘sensitivity police’ are out to promote the idea that no one should be allowed to say anything that might possibly offend anybody else under any circumstance that could make somebody feel like an abused minority. I think this is a deadly course to follow--one that will not only cause free speech to suffer, but will ultimately destroy the language itself.”
Meanwhile, photographer Jock Sturges’ nightmare in San Francisco is far from finished.
Much of his art and personal property has yet to be returned. On top of that, Sturges claims approximately six dozen of his clients, friends and family members across the United States and Europe have been phoned or visited by authorities.
A technician who exposed several rolls of film for the artist--including a nude beach snapshot series processed by film-lab employees who alerted authorities--was charged with two felony counts of producing child pornography and 10 misdemeanor counts of possession.
Although a grand jury called by the Justice Department to investigate his case has been impaneled for more than eight months, the government has yet to charge Sturges with any crime.
“What they’ve done to me, they can do to anybody,” Sturges said. “Censorship is out there with a vengeance.”
The Coral Gables, Fla., attorney engineered the 1990 national legal assault against Miami rap group 2 Live Crew’s sexually explicit music.
I spent this past year trying to get a record declared legally obscene: “As Nasty as They Wanna Be.” We succeeded for the first time in history, despite the ACLU and other extremists.
This next year I’ll try to get Madonna, Warner Bros. Records and large retail chains busted for criminally distributing the “Justify My Love” video to children. Only God knows if we’ll succeed.
One thing is certain: America’s in a cultural civil war, and I’m taking Winston Churchill’s advice: “Never, never, never give in.”
Chair of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California. The ACLU represented defendants this year in free-speech court battles across the nation.
I believe the free-speech battleground is going to shift away from the legal arena in 1991 and become more focused in the business arena. Boycotts by fanatic ideologues, no matter how small a minority they might be, can seriously affect business in the entertainment community. Retailers, publishers, record companies, film studios and TV sponsors have proven to be alarmingly susceptible to the boycott tactics being employed by pressure groups. Frankly, I am very disturbed about the lack of effective strategy on the part of free-speech advocates to counteract what I would call neo-blacklisting by these pressure groups.
I think the new challenge for First Amendment advocates is to figure out how to conduct the free-speech battle within the confines of the international business community.
The founder and chief executive officer of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
During 1989 and 1990 the United States government, exercising its coercive taxing powers, took taxpayers’ money to pay for the following “art”: a statue of Jesus Christ immersed in urine with the title “Piss Christ”; a statue of Pope John Paul II, immersed in urine, entitled “Piss Pope”; a painting of a grossly overweight naked woman, her legs spread open and her pubic hairs sewed together, entitled “Fundamentalist Dream Girl”; and a larger exhibit called “Tongues of Fire” showing Jesus Christ, on the cross, shooting heroin in his arm.
Christians worship Jesus Christ as God incarnate, who died for their eternal salvation. It has now become very trendy for some members of the arts community to vilify the 100 million Americans who are Christians by ridiculing their Lord and Savior.
Anti-Christian bigotry is no less despicable than anti-Semitic bigotry, racist bigotry or sexist bigotry.
Private or public expressions of bigotry can and should be dealt with by reason, by rebuke or by economic boycott. Norman Lear called for a boycott against Christian broadcasters. The National Football League has boycotted Arizona. The National Organization for Women threatened repeated boycotts against states that refused to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
Rest assured that Christian groups during the 1990s will not long sit idly by while newspapers, magazines, television shows and motion pictures spew out Nazilike venom against them, their leaders and their Lord. There will be more and more protests, picketing and massive economic boycotts against those who practice anti-Christian bigotry.
And well there should be. Under the First Amendment, the arts community and the media have a perfect right to be as bigoted as their sponsors and the general public will let them. And under the same First Amendment, the recipients of that bigotry have a right to use all lawful means to bring the bigots to their knees economically, socially and hopefully spiritually.
The sharp clash of ideas in the marketplace is a part of freedom. What is not a part of freedom is the intervention of the United States government to use its powers to ridicule and crush any segment of the religious life of this nation.
To compel the American taxpayer to furnish funds to disseminate concepts that are highly repugnant to him is, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “sinful and tyrannical.” I intend to fight this tyranny with whatever resources are made available to me, and I am confident that most thinking Americans will join me.
Youth-culture specialist at the Pomona-based Focus on the Family, a media watchdog group founded by psychologist and Christian radio host Dr. James Dobson.
The Washington Post didn’t. The Miami Herald didn’t. The Ft. Myers (Fla.) News Press didn’t. And, not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Times didn’t, either.
When reporting on the debate over explicit lyrics in some popular music--most notably that of 2 Live Crew--and the public’s demand for warning labels, these “objective” news publications failed to print even one example of the problem.
Imagine that. Instead of providing the public with even one sample of explicit music, these journalists routinely apply their own labels--such as “censor” and “right-wing religious fundamentalist"--to the concerned parents and legislators who are working to protect young minds from hard-core, sexually deviant and violent lyrics.
When I was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times on this subject, I urged The Times to include any one verse from any song found on “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” (recorded by 2 Live Crew). The lyrics on this million-selling album are so graphic that The Times (didn’t print them). I see. According to the press there’s no problem--yet the lyrics are too obscene to reprint in a family newspaper.
Clearly, until the media tells the public the truth by printing the evidence, it is they--not concerned parents and legislators--who are America’s censors.
Vice president of the Washington-based People for the American Way, a media watchdog group founded by producer Norman Lear that has been tracking the free-speech battle since 1980.
In the artistic world, 1990 will be remembered as the year of the censor. The political far right targeted music, television, the arts and works of literature in schoolbooks in what it deems the new “cultural war.” Indications are that 1991 could be another banner year for attacks on free expression.
Now that communism is no longer a viable organizing and fund-raising tool, far-right leaders such as Pat Robertson, the Rev. Don Wildmon and Focus on the Family need a new villain. Unfortunately, they’ve chosen their fellow Americans’ free-expression rights as their next target.
That’s particularly ironic given that 1991 marks the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Those of us who cherish the American traditions of free expression cannot abdicate to the far right decisions on what art we can see, music we can hear and thoughts we can think.
President of the Parents Music Resource Center, an Arlington, Va.-based media watchdog group that pioneered the concept of parental advisory warning stickers for pop music with explicit lyrics.
Music is a powerful medium, and a very real problem exists concerning violent and explicit lyrics being made available to children in the marketplace. We regard mandatory labeling legislation as censorship and the (center) opposes any such restrictions on free expression.
I believe the most important development in 1990 regarding explicit music was the successful implementation of a standardized voluntary labeling system supported by all the major trade groups in the recording industry. We are pleased that record companies have decided to act responsibly and encourage parents to give the system time to work.
Associate editor of Rock and Roll Confidential, the recording industry newsletter that initiated the counterassault against music censorship.
Voters in the 1990 election said no to censorship. Missouri state Rep. Jean Dixon, spirit of record-labeling laws in more than 35 states, was beaten in the August primary election. Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, the man who tried to save his job by going to war against 2 Live Crew, was soundly whipped on Nov. 6.
Although longshot Harvey Gantt lost to supercensor Jesse Helms in the North Carolina Senate race, a close look at the returns shows that Gantt, with backing from the local and national music community, actually won among all but one voter category. Gantt finished first with women and with age groups 18-29, 30-44 and 45-59. Helms barely squeaked by only as a result of his 58% margin among white senior citizens.
That’s what happened when voters had the facts. Unfortunately, Martinez, Helms and Dixon may have been the only candidates in the 1990 elections whose pro-censorship records were widely known. No incumbent senator was made to explain his or her vote for the 1988 censorship law known inaccurately as the Child Protection and Enforcement Act. This federal law gives the Justice Department broad powers to confiscate the assets of entertainment companies and their employees for distributing “obscene” materials--which the law does not define. The act was passed 93-0 by the U.S. Senate.
In Louisiana, the voters were not aware that Klansman David Duke, who almost won a U.S. Senate seat, had voted for that state’s record-labeling bill.
The issue in 1991 and beyond is that Californians have to catch up with rock fans in the rest of the country who are picketing Tipper Gore in South Carolina and staging anti-censorship concerts in Florida and Pennsylvania and leafletting arena shows in Ohio.
Then we need to follow Harvey Gantt’s example and take our rock ‘n’ roll agenda to the voters. That agenda begins with freedom of expression, but also includes the other demands our music expresses: peace, equality, food, housing, jobs, clean air and water. From Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” to Phil Collins’ recent concert for Dignity Housing in Philadelphia, our music exposes the refusal of our elected censors to solve any of the problems that are destroying our country. That’s exactly why we’re being censored. If we can’t find politicians to run loud and proud on the rock ‘n’ roll agenda, we’ll have to find candidates by looking in the mirror. It’s time for you to start thinking about running for office.
SEN. JESSE HELMS
The public official who sounded the charge against government funding of controversial art in 1990 could not be reached for comment, but released the following statement:
The National Endowment for the Arts has always had the responsibility and the duty to decide what is and is not suitable for federal funding of the arts--and that has been precisely the problem. The NEA has defaulted upon that responsibility. It has been insulated from mainstream American values so long that it has become captive to a morally decadent minority which delights in ridiculing the values and beliefs of decent, moral taxpayers.
It should therefore be evident that as long as the NEA is given the sole authority to decide what is artistic--and thus not obscene--the agency intends to continue to fund obscenity under the pretense that it is “art"--even when the taxpayers disagree.
Congress, at a minimum, should (allow) a panel of lay citizens--and not the self-appointed elitists at the NEA--to decide whether patently offensive works merit taxpayer funding.
Spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department in Washington.
Congress writes the laws, we just enforce them.
The Justice Department believes that a clear definition of what is obscene was set forth in the 1973 Supreme Court decision of Miller vs. California. What critics fail to note, beyond the oft-quoted three-prong test, is that further on in the decision, the court actually describes what it finds to be obscene.
The relevant passage in the definition reads as follows: “Patently offensive descriptions or representations of ultimate sexual acts normal or perverted, actual or simulated, patently offensive representations or descriptions of masturbation, excretory functions and lewd exhibition of the genitals.”
Obscenity cases are currently a priority for the department. I know it’s easy for critics to suggest that there is a vigilant, crusading Justice Department out there simply going out and looking for obscenity and pornography, but the fact is, American citizens are complaining.
THE REV. BILLY A. MELVIN
The executive director of the National Assn. of Evangelicals and chairman of CLeaR-TV, the media watchdog group that initiated a successful boycott against Burger King in 1990.
Christian Leaders for Responsible Television (CLeaR-TV) seeks to address the issue of excessive and gratuitous sex, violence and profanity in prime-time television programming. We believe that the majority of Americans agree that much of the current programming is destructive to the quality of life we enjoy in this country.
Since network executives were unresponsive to our concerns, we turned to the corporate sponsors, appealing to them to consider in their ad placements not only the demographics of a show, but the content as well. Our work involves monitoring prime-time programs for periods of time and reporting the results to the sponsors. We have indicated that we will boycott companies that persist in sponsoring shows with high incidents of sex, violence or profanity.
Happily, a growing number of corporations are recognizing the legitimacy of our concern and are taking steps to pre-screen and be selective in the placement of their advertising.
We expect to continue our efforts in 1991 and will give the American people an opportunity to express their feelings through future boycotts.
Times staff writer Allan Parachini contributed to this article.