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Is censorship of music a constitutional infringement? Without violating civil rights, is it possible to protect younger citizens against vulgar, violent or otherwise inappropriate material. For hundreds of years, people have been kept away from what they could see, hear and think. Music censorship has been a part of our civilization since music became an organized art form (Lang and Lang).
In western culture, it is only in the past century that artists have been persecuted for their creative abilities. Throughout the 1800s, classical music was created under what is known as a patronage system; a wealthy individual would pay a composer to create music for him. In this system it was highly unlikely that an artist would violate the moral constraints of the day.
Most of what refers to music censorship did not really begin until the early 1950s with the advent of rock and roll. Influencing young adults to behave in wild manners stirred up enormous controversy in America. In 1957, catholic schools in Chicago banned rock music. According to Cardinal Strich, rock’s “tribal rhythms” encourage young people to “behave in a hedonistic manner”. One of the United States’ most prized musicians, Elvis, was the victim of music censorship in January of 1957. The producers of The Ed Sullivan Show informed the camera crew that they were to only show Elvis Presley from the waist up because his dancing was considered vulgar.
Throughout the next forty years, music censorship was fairly mild and pertained to issues mostly including drugs and political themes (Lang and Lang, 54). Mild music censorship changed in the summer of 1990. A rap group, 2 Live Crew, had recently produced an album that was, by many of its opposers’ views, obscene. A federal court judge ruled that the album was obscene and that record stores in his three counties would face punishment if caught distributing. (Lang and Lang, 23)
The album lost its free speech protection because it passed the three-part test for obscenity established by the Supreme Court. First, the album was without a serious artistic, political, or scientific merit; second, it was plainly offensive to the community; and third the lyrics appealed to prurient interests, that is, they were meant to stir up lustful thoughts in the average person. The Judge said the music was for the “loins, not the intellect” (Lang and Lang, 25).
What is obscenity? Can we as a civilization really define what an obscene act or lyric is? Of course, individuals can plainly see what is obscene through our own judgement. Religion is considered the tool for moral judgment in cases concerning musical obscenity. According to Reverend Howard Moody, “For Christians the truly obscene ought not to be a slick paper nudity, nor the vulgarities of dirty old or young literature. What is obscene is that material, whether sexual or not, that has as its basic motivation and purpose the degradation, debasement and dehumanizing persons. The dirtiest word in the English language to us… the word “nigger” from the sneering lips of a Bull Connor (former police commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama). Obscenity ought to be much closer to the Biblical definition of blasphemy against God and man…. I do not conceive that a picture is “dirty” because sex is the dominant theme…. The “lewdest” picture of all-more obscene then all the tawdry products of the “smut industry” are the pictures of Dachau (a concentration camp in WWII responsible for many deaths), the ovens and the grotesque pile of human corpses.” In this statement, obscenity is not so much in the art that is produced, but within the acts that are committed in the real world. Music sometimes is blamed for inciting such acts, but in reality music is only translating the reality of what really goes on.
Many anti-censorship groups would say that the censorship of music violates the First Amendment, which entitles free speech for every American. Under the Constitution, every man, women and child has the right to speak and write; as well as the right to read, hear, and to know.
Even though they would argue that music censorship is an infringement of one’s civil rights, there are many excellent reasons why it is helpful. For example, by protecting young people against inappropriate materials, and parents can more knowingly have a role in their lives by influencing their morals and opinions rather than someone they have never encountered.