Free Speech VS Censorship: Warnings From Explicit Lyrics to Trigger WarningsWatch the video
TEXT ON SCREEN: August 9, 1985
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 8-9-85):
PETER JENNINGS: This is a question, particularly for older people. When was the last time you listened carefully to some of the words the rock singers sing?
ARCHIVAL (CYNDI LAUPER MUSIC VIDEO):
CYNDI LAUPER: She bop, he bop and we bop.
NARRATION: Rock music has always been controversial…
ARCHIVAL (ACDC MUSIC VIDEO):
ACDC: Let me put my love into you babe.
NARRATION: …but in the 1980s, many parents felt lyrics had finally gone too far.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 9-12-85):
TIPPER GORE: Songs glorifying rape, or incest, or bondage.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 9-19-85):
SUSAN BAKER: Rock lyrics have turned from ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ to ‘I’m going to force you at gun point to eat me alive.’
SUSAN BAKER (CO-FOUNDER, PARENTS MUSIC RESOURCE CENTER): Some of it is encouraging unlawful behavior and music is harmless? I don’t think so.
NARRATION: The high-profile crusade raised age-old questions of what crosses the line.
LUTHER CAMPBELL (FORMER MEMBER, 2 LIVE CREW): I said, “If I’m going to go to jail for something, I’ll go to jail for free speech.” You know what I’m saying?
KAREN STERNHEIMER: People have been complaining about popular culture since ancient Greece. There are quotes from Plato about the violence in Greek tragedies and their effect on kids. Aristotle disagreed. It really raises the question of how do we know? How do we define harm?
SEX, DRUGS AND GORE
NARRATION: MTV gave musicians of the 1980s a new kind of exposure.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-19-85):
REPORTER: Today, rock and roll comes right into your living room and not just on records, but in living color.
SUSAN BAKER: Our daughter was only seven. And she came to me one day and she said, ‘Mom, what’s a virgin?’
ARCHIVAL (LIKE A VIRGIN MUSIC VIDEO):
MADONNA: Like a Virgin, touched for the very first time.
SUSAN BAKER: And she said, “What does that mean?” I said, “Oh, my gosh.” And then Tipper, her daughter bought Purple Rain, Prince’s Purple Rain. “I met a girl named Nikki I guess you could say she was a sex fiend.”
ARCHIVAL (PURPLE RAIN MUSIC VIDEO):
PRINCE: I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 7-6-85):
TIPPER GORE: I did not think that was appropriate for my then ten-year-old child to have purchased.
SUSAN BAKER: It just made us angry and we knew that others didn’t know about it so we just thought, you know, “We have to do something.”
NARRATION: Susan Baker and Tipper Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center, or PMRC, though they soon became known by a different name.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 9-12-85):
REPORTER: The Washington Wives they’re called. Mrs. Albert Gore the Senator’s wife and Mrs. James Baker, the wife of the Treasury Secretary.
NARRATION: They compiled a list of songs they found particularly offensive, branded the ‘Filthy Fifteen.’
SUSAN BAKER: It was Motley Crew. It was Wasp. It was the, the album that had the guy with the codpiece that had the big buzz saw on it. I mean, please.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 9-19-85):
GIRL IN MALL: I think maybe rating records is going too far. I don’t know. That would be like rating books.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, NIGHTLINE, 9-13-85):
FRANK ZAPPA: If it looks like censorship and it smells like censorship, it is censorship, no matter who’s wife is talking about it. It’s censorship.
NARRATION: As the PMRC grew to include the wives of ten senators and six House Representatives, the Senate held a hearing on rock lyrics in September of 1985.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN HEARINGS):
CHAIRMAN DANFORTH: If you could speak directly into the microphone. Thank you.
SUSAN BAKER: Some say there’s no cause for concern. We believe there is.
NARRATION: The PMRC argued that songs about sex and violence were having a dangerous impact.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN HEARINGS):
SUSAN BAKER: Teen pregnancies and teenage suicide rates are at epidemic proportions today.
NARRATION: And they gave senators a taste of the Filthy Fifteen.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN HEARINGS):
TWISTED SISTER VIDEO: We’re Not Gonna Take it!
ARCHIVAL (CSPAN HEARINGS):
SENATOR ERNEST HOLLINGS: In all candor I would tell you it’s outrageous filth and if I could find some way constitutionally to do away with it, I would.
NARRATION: It wasn’t the first time that pop culture had been accused of poisoning America’s youth. In the 1950s, politicians took aim at a different menace – comic books.
ARCHIVAL (HISTORIC FILMS NEWSREEL OF 1954 HEARINGS):
SENATOR KEFAUVER: This seems to be a man with a bloody axe, holding a woman’s head that’s been severed from her body. Do you think that’s in good taste?
BILL GAINES: Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic.
NARRATION: The post-World War II boom in horror, crime and romance comics alarmed psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who testified at Senate hearings in 1954.
ARCHIVAL (COMIC BOOK CONFIDENTIAL):
FREDRIC WERTHAM: It is my opinion without any reasonable doubt, and without any reservation, that comic books are an important contributing factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency.
NARRATION: There was just one problem with Wertham’s case against comics – he manipulated his research to prove his point. Historian Carol Tilley recently uncovered these distortions, but Wertham had already left his mark on the comic book industry.
CAROL TILLEY (COMIC BOOK HISTORIAN): The comics publishers in 1954 came together to create the Comics Code Authority, the CCA. Publishers would have to submit their stories and artwork to the Code Authority for approval.
ARCHIVAL (1950S FOOTAGE FROM COMIC BOOK CONFIDENTIAL):
In short, comics have undergone a major face-lifting.
CAROL TILLEY: There were smaller publishers that chose to go out of business rather than try to comply with the code. It was an industry regulating itself, taking away its provocative edges and dulling them for a very long time.
NARRATION: Three decades later, the Washington wives proposed a code of their own – an explicit lyric warning label – which the industry soon agreed to. But the idea of a warning label worried musicians like Frank Zappa.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN HEARINGS):
FRANK ZAPPA: They may say we are not interested in legislation, but there are others who do and there’s this fervor to get in and do even more, even more.
NARRATION: A few years later, Zappa’s fears became a reality.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 6-8-90):
REPORTER: The rap group 2 Live Crew.
NARRATION: In 1990, a federal district court judge in Florida ruled that some of the group’s songs were obscene, and could not legally be sold or performed in three Florida counties.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 6-9-90):
REPORTER: Yesterday Ft Lauderdale authorities arrested store owner Charles Freeman. He had refused to stop selling the group’s best selling album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be.
LUTHER CAMPBELL (FORMER MEMBER 2 LIVE CREW): My reaction was, are these people crazy? You know? Adults should be able to listen to whatever they want to listen to.
NARRATION: Group leader Luther Campbell refused to cancel an upcoming concert.
LUTHER CAMPBELL: It was important to perform, you know, and exercise my free speech.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 6-10-90):
REPORTER: Undercover officers, who had been hiding in the audience, arrested band members Luther Campbell and Chris Wong Won on charges of violating Florida obscenity laws.
SUSAN BAKER: If performers do things that outrage the people in a community, this is probably going to happen. I mean that is not what we were about. But I’m not surprised.
NARRATION: Campbell was acquitted on obscenity charges, but found that all the controversy surrounding 2 Live Crew had an effect Florida officials didn’t anticipate.
LUTHER CAMPBELLL: It took us to a whole other level as a group. On one end we became household names.But on the other end it became bigger than 2 Live Crew.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 12-18-93):
REPORTER: This is gangsta rap. It is raw, in-your-face music that reflects violence, drug use.
NARRATION: In then end, neither warning labels nor legal challenges dulled music’s provocative edges, despite occasional flare-ups in the press.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 2-24-07):
NEWS ANCHOR: Hip Hop. Is it art or is it poison?
NARRATION: Today, the parental advisory label is less controversial, but also less relevant.
KAREN STERNHEIMER (AUTHOR, POP CULTURE PANICS): The difference now, of course, is that the way that we buy music and share music is so completely different.
NARRATION: Sociologist Karen Sternheimer studies popular culture. She says neither comic books in the 1950s nor rock music in the 1980s had the impact on children that critics claimed.
KAREN STERNHEIMER: It’s really difficult to think about the complexities of what actually causes things that we consider to be social problems. So it’s easier and much more visible to say, “Oh, well, these movies right now. Or there’s video games. Or there’s music that’s really graphically sexual.”
NARRATION: Whether or not they’re effective, warning labels have become such a part of daily life that, today, it’s not just parents who are calling for them.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, 5-21-14):
NEWS ANCHOR: Some students are calling on professors to implement what are known as trigger warnings. Labels used to flag course materials deemed violent or sexually explicit.
BAILEY LOVERIN: A trigger warning or a content warning kind of warns the person that, “Hey, this is coming up.’You’re going to deal with some tricky stuff. Make sure you’re ready for it.
NARRATION: In 2014, Bailey Loverin sponsored a student resolution at the University of California Santa Barbara, calling for trigger warnings on course syllabi to alert students who have had a traumatic experience like sexual abuse.
BAILEY LOVERIN: It’s about students that could be suffering from PTSD and not wanting to be triggered in the middle of an 800-person classroom and feeling afraid or feeling completely out of control.Growing up in a society that has all these warnings already it’s not necessarily an irrational proposal.
NARRATION: Students on several college campuses support trigger warnings,but many professors fear they could limit exposure to ideas, and the proposals have been publicly criticized.
ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 8-12-15):
GREG LUKIANOFF: There’s such a sort of moral fervor to protecting people from potential emotional harm. It’s taking on this edge that I actually think that it’s preventing people from talking to each other.
NARRATION: Even one of the staunchest advocates of labeling thinks this goes too far. But for her, it’s a question of who gets to decide.
SUSAN BAKER: I don’t think labeling is a bad thing. But for curriculum and things, I don’t know that the kids get to call the shots.