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Censorship Of American Media Essay, Research Paper

Censorship of American Media and Music

The first amendment to the Constitution contends that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of the press. In the past ten years especially, music has been under assault by lawmakers, prosecutors and critics of morality and taste.

One attack on this freedom comes from parental advisory stickers. These stickers are used as a form of censorship against an artist and his or her lyrics. I feel that if a label will produce an album, there is no reason the consumer cannot decide for him or herself if lyrics contained in the album are found obscene or otherwise unsuitable. In order to begin the debate on whether or not parental advisory stickers serve as a form of censorship, one must consider what the word censor implies. The word censor defined by Webster dictionary means the power to suppress publications or excise any matter in them thought to be immoral, seditious or otherwise undesirables.

The question of what constitutes “proper” language and obscenity has been greatly forced upon the music industry. The government oversteps the constitution in concluding on which lyrics are appropriate for children. Legislation on this topic has been in effect since the mid 1950’s. Further legislation was not passed until 1985, when music labeling was voluntarily adopted by the Recording Industry of America. Later in 1990, although each company retained discretion regarding the labeling of specific records, the size, placement and wording of the logo were standardized. The current labeling consists of a black and white logo, fixed to the permanent packaging on the bottom right hand corner. For all the controversy these stickers stir up, does it serve a practical use for protecting the young people of the nation?

Parental advisory stickers, voluntary or mandatory, act as a form of censorship because the stickers effect the availability of a sound recording. More and more music stores are restricting the accessibility of works deemed to be offensive to one group of citizens or another.

In 1992 it was announced that Ice T’s song “Cop Killer” would not be in future albums, and that all-existing albums would be recalled. Consequently, approximately 1,400 stores dropped the album. Many major retailers such as Woolworth’s and K-mart will not purchase, and therefore not display, an album with any kind of parental advisory sticker on it. While it is true that legally these labels do not prohibit sales to anyone, the labels “amount to an elegant form of censorship, elegant because it is censorship made to look like consumer information.”

As controversial as records like Ice T and other artists who use either swears or sexually explicit material are, artistic pieces no matter what kind of message they send, or however unpopular they may be, are still protected by the first amendment to the constitution. The people who vote for and pass the laws prohibiting free speech are taking it upon themselves what they think is moral and right for the rest of the country. I feel I can make up my own mind about what type of music I listen to, how about you? One organization claiming to protect the children is the Parents Music Resource Center. At the center of the music labeling controversy, the P.M.R.C., “feels that current levels of violence, racism, brutality towards women, drug and alcohol glamorization in music, lyrics, videos and stage shows need to be addressed through public discussion and debate.”

The P.M.R.C. hopes to prohibit the sale of records to minors that contain lyrics about sex, drugs and alcohol, murder or suicide. If that were the case, even the bible may be labeled with a parental advisory sticker. With its descriptions about crucifictions, stonings, and other primal methods of punishment. One must also take into consideration that no direct link between exposure to sexually explicit material and antisocial behavior or sexual violence has ever been established or proven.

Many organizations have been founded as a counter attack to the Parent’s Music Resource Center. One group that works for freedom of expression call themselves, Parents of Rock and Rap. Members include students of all ages, parents, grandparents, college professors and musicians. No matter what side of the issue you stand for, the issues as of now have to be settled by the consumer. Restricting the purchase of displeasing recordings is censorship. The entire system must be carefully examined, including prior court rulings and decisions on the music industry and the way in which we protect our children from what they see and hear. One must ask if it is constitutionally moral, and then we may begin to change the warning system, so that our guaranteed freedoms do not die.

No other democratic society in the world permits personal freedoms to the degree of the United States of America. Within the last sixty years, American courts, especially the Supreme Court, have developed a set of legal doctrines that thoroughly protect all forms of the freedom of expression. When it comes to evaluating the degree to which we take advantage of the opportunity to express our opinions, some members of society may be guilty of violating the bounds of the First Amendment by publicly offending others through obscenity or racism. Americans have developed a distinct disposition toward the freedom of expression throughout history.

The First Amendment clearly voices a great American respect toward the freedom of religion. It also prevents the government from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Since the early history of our country, the protection of basic freedoms has been of the utmost importance to Americans.

In Langston Hughes? poem, “Freedom,” he emphasizes the struggle to enjoy the freedoms that he knows are rightfully his. He reflects the American desire for freedom now when he says, “I do not need my freedom when I?m dead. I cannot live on tomorrow?s bread.” He recognizes the need for freedom in its entirety without compromise or fear.

I think Langston Hughes captures the essence of the American immigrants? quest for freedom in his poem, “Freedom?s Plow.” He accurately describes American?s as arriving with nothing but dreams and building America with the hopes of finding greater freedom or freedom for the first time. He depicts how people of all backgrounds worked together for one cause: freedom.

I selected Ray Bradbury?s Fahrenheit 451 as a fictitious example of the evils of censorship in a world that is becoming illiterate. In this book, the government convinces the public that book reading is evil because it spreads harmful opinions and agitates people against the government. The vast majorities of people accept this censorship of expression without question and are content to see and hear only the government?s propaganda. I found this disturbing yet realistic. Bradbury?s hidden opposition to this form of censorship was apparent throughout the book and finally prevailed in the end when his main character rebelled against the practice of burning books.

Freedom of speech is constantly being challenged as is evidenced in a recent court case where a Gloucester County school district censored reviews of two R-rated movies from a school newspaper. Superior Court Judge, Robert E. Francis ruled that the student?s rights were violated under the state Constitution. I feel this is a major break through for students? rights because it limits editorial control of school newspapers by educators and allows students to print what they feel is important.

A newly proposed bill (A-557) would prevent school officials from controlling the content of student publications. Critics of the bill feel that “student journalists may be too young to understand the responsibilities that come with free speech.” This is a valid point; however, it would provide an excellent opportunity for them to learn about their First Amendment rights that guarantees free speech and freedom of the press.

One of the more controversial issues was the recent 2 Live Crew incident involving obscenity in rap music. Their record, “As Nasty as They Wanna Be,” was ruled obscene in federal court. They were acquitted of the charges and quickly became a free speech martyr. Although many stores pulled the album, over two million copies sold as a result of the incident. I feel that in this case the principles of free speech have been abused because young children can purchase and listen to this obscene music.

The American flag, symbol of our country?s history and patriotism, has also become a topic of controversy. The controversy was over the right to burn the flag without punishment. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan offered the response that “if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Burning the flag is considered a form of symbolic speech and therefore is protected under the First Amendment. As in the 2 Live Crew case, I feel that we are protecting the wrong people in this case. The minority is given precedence at the sacrifice of the majority.

The American voice on freedom has been shaped throughout the course of history by the initial democratic notions of the immigrants to the same desire for greater freedom that we have today. The freedom of speech has constantly been challenged and will continue to be challenged in the future. It is important that we learn from the precedented cases of the past of our constitutionally protected rights so that in the future authority will not violate our freedoms or oppress our liberty.

Ever since colonial times, the protection of personal freedoms in the United States has been significantly important. Even in the early stages of American history there was an urge to put legally protected freedoms into written government documents. The result was the drafting of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, by James Madison. The applications of the personal freedoms described in the Bill of Rights, particularly the freedom of speech, have been challenged repeatedly in American courts of law and elsewhere. These incidents and challenges of authority reflect the defensive American attitude toward the ever-important freedom of expression and the growing significance of personal rights throughout American history.

In Colonial America, members of diverse nationalities had opposing views on government, religion, and other subjects of interest. Serious confrontations were prevented because of the vast lands that separated groups of varying opinions. A person could easily settle in with other like believers and be untouched by the prejudices and oppression of others. For this reason, Unitarians avoided Anglican or Puritan communities. Quakers and Anabaptists were confined to Pennsylvania and Rhode Island while Catholics were mainly concentrated in Maryland. As the United States grew larger and larger, these diverse groups were forced to live together. This may have caused individual liberties to be violated because of the distrust and hostile feelings between ethnic and religious groups.

Most of the initial assemblies among the colonies considered themselves immune from criticism. They actually issued warrants of arrest, interrogated, fined, and imprisoned anyone accused of libeling the assembly as a whole or any of its members. Many people were tracked down for writing or speaking works of offense.

The first assembly to meet in America, the Virginia House of Burgesses, stripped Captain Henry Spellman of his rank when he was found guilty of “treasonable words.” Even in the most tolerant colonies, printing was strictly regulated. The press of William Bradford was seized by the government when he printed up a copy of the colony?s charter. He was charged with seditious libel and spent more than a year in prison.

James Alexander was the first colonial writer to develop a philosophy on the freedom of speech. He founded the American Philosophical Society and masterminded the Zenger defense. Alexander?s chief conviction was “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar in a free government: when this support is taken away, the constitution is dissolved and tyranny is erected on its ruins.”

The original Constitution did not contain a bill of rights because the convention delegates felt that individual rights were in no danger and would be protected by the states. However, the lack of a bill of rights was the strongest objection to the ratification of the Constitution.

Less than a decade after the Bill of Rights had been adopted it met its first serious challenge. In 1798, there was a threat of war with France and thousands of French refugees were living in the United States. Many radicals supported the French cause and were considered “incompatible with social order.” This hysteria led Congress to enact several alien and sedition laws. One law forbade the publication of false, scandalous or malicious writing against the government, Congress or the President. The penalty for this crime was a $2,000 fine and two years in prison.

The public was enraged at these laws. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison pleaded for freedom of speech and the press. The alien and sedition laws became a prime issue in the presidential election of 1800. Soon after Jefferson was elected, the Sedition Act expired and those who had been convicted under it were immediately pardoned.

The next attack on the First Amendment occurred in 1835. President Andrew Jackson proposed a law that would prohibit the use of mail for “incendiary publications intended to instigate the slaves to insurrection.” John C. Calhoun of South Carolina led a special committee that opposed the proposal on grounds that it conflicted with the First Amendment. The proposal was defeated because it was a form of censorship.

An even more vicious episode was known as “McCarthyism,” an incident in the 1950?s when Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin proclaimed that the federal government had been thoroughly infiltrated by Communist agents. His attacks on United States information libraries abroad led to the burning of some books accused of being Communist propaganda. Reduced congressional support caused many librarians to resign and the closing of libraries.

During the sixties and early seventies a new wave of court battles for First Amendment freedoms emerged. The freedom of speech was recognized as a vital element in a democratic society. Censorship and the infringement of First Amendment rights, especially among students and their newspapers, could not and would not be tolerated. American citizens took a firm stand against the government and authority at important times when they could have yielded to the oppressive violations of their rights.

?On July seventh there was a major defeat of a second censorship bill in Louisiana

that would have made it legal to sell stickered albums to minors. Officials from the RIAA,

and the National Association of Recording Merchandise were very pleased.?(Explicit).

For other legal areas, ?Minneapolis Cities attorney general has informed Minnesota

attorney general, Hubert H Humphry III, that the sale of N.W.A album ?Efil4zaggin? to

minors is not prosecutable under state, and local laws.?(Minnesota). The albums content

as a whole did not satisfy the definition of, harmful to minors as set forth by the state and

city statutes. On July 26, Humphrey asked the Minneapolis attorney general to stop the

sale of the rap album to minors. On August 16, the Minneapolis attorney general, sent a

letter to Humphrey regarding the album, stating, that ?all sixteen tracks on the album did

not violate any laws, and that the album would still be sold to minors?.(Efil4zaggin).

A political group called ?Rock Out Censorship? has lead the fight against

stickering albums containing lyrics that are profane and sexual.?(freedom). The leaders

of this group, John Woods and Randy Lee Payton, produce a monthly newspaper

dedicated to exposing, and fighting censorship.(Freedom). The pair are accustomed to

censorship efforts from religious rights fighters, and especially angry with so called

?liberals? who support music censorship. The organization holds a concert once a year

with performances be many bands whose albums are censored and don?t want it that way.

“Outraged by songs that focus on weird sex, violence, drugs, alcohol, and evil

devil worship, lawmakers in 16 states have introduced legislation that would require

special warning labels on records considered unsuitable for young people.” (Manning, 10)

Some stores which sell CD’s will not carry albums which contain obscenities or sell them

to anyone under the age of 18. While 16 states have laws which makes labeling

mandatory, “the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has initiated a

voluntary, nationwide campaign to label objectionable albums with the uniform sticker:

Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics.” (Manning, 10). The P.M.R.C is the most strongly

fought against organization by people who are against censorship. Although, Tipper Gore

says that she and the P.M.R.C are “strongly opposed to censorship and all that we ever

wanted was to provide consumer info so that we can make an informed choice in the

stores.” (Manning, 16).

As the war of censorship goes into some of its most important battles I urge all consumers to accept personal responsibility and make an informed choice by yourself and not with the help of the P.M.R.C or the government. Let us not forget the founding father?s wishes to make this country a place where people can decide: what religion to practice, write what you want in a newspaper, gather freely and peacefully, and last but not least, to say what you want to say without the threat of government intervention.


“Amendments to the Constitution.” Collier?s Encyclopedia, 1965 ed.

Langston Hughes, The Panther and the Lash (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1967), 55.

Langston Hughes, Selected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1981), 291-293.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973).

Donna Leusner, “Social Services Advocates Rally for ?Human? Touch in State Budget,” The Star Ledger, 9 April 1991: A-3.

“Student Wins Freedom of Speech Case,” Daily Record, 24 April 1991: A-2.

Bob McHugh, “?Free Speech? Moves for School Newspapers,” The Star Ledger, 4 May 1991: A-3.

Cathy Bugman, “Monmouth Grads Hear Top Lawyer Defend Broad Right to Free Speech,” The Star Ledger, 27 May 1991: A-9.

David Gates, “The Importance of Being Nasty,” Newsweek, 2 July 1990:

52. Walter Isaacson, “O?er the Land of the Free,” Time, 3 July 1989: 14-15.

American Voices (New York: Phillip Morris, 1987).

The First Freedom Today (Chicago: American Library, 1984), 3-7

Nat Hentoff, The First Freedom (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1980), 4.


“Amendments to the Constitution.” Collier?s Encyclopedia. 1965 ed.

American Voices. New York: Phillip Morris, 1987.

Bollinger, Lee. C. The Tolerant Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.

Bugman, Cathy. “Monmouth Grads Hear Top Lawyer Defend Broad Right to Free Speech.” The Star Ledger, 7 May 1991: A-9.

First Freedom Today, The. Chicago: American Library Association, 1984.

Gates, David. “The Importance of Being Nasty.” Newsweek, 2 July 1990:

52. Hentoff, Nat. The First Freedom. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1980.

Hughes, Langston. The Panther and the Lash. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1967.

Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1981.

Isaacson, Walter. “O?er the Land of the Free.” Time, 3 July 1989: 14-15.

Kalven, Harry, Jr. A Worthy Tradition. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Leusner, Donna. “Social Services Advocates Rally for ?Human? Touch in State Budget.” The Star Ledger, April 1991: A-3.

McHugh, Bob. “?Free Speech? Moves for School Newspapers.” The Star Ledger, 4 May 1991: A-3.

“Student Wins Freedom of Speech Case.” Daily Record, 24 April 1991: A-2

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