Federal and State censorship legislation causes stir -- New efforts have been made by the government to explicate and expand criteria for what constitutes ''obscenity''

People say it can’t happen here, but it already has. On March 15, a 19-year-old Florida record store clerk was arrested and charged with a felony count of selling harmful materials — 2 Live Crew’s album As Nasty as They Wanna Be — to a minor. The clerk faces up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine. In Oklahoma, police walked into a video store and confiscated every adult movie in sight. And in a small town in Alabama, a record store owner was arrested after selling a cop a rap tape (see related story).

Since early December, legislators in eight states have filed bills that would make it illegal to sell certain albums unless their covers feature prominent stickers warning of their unsuitability for minors. (In Florida, minors would be unable to buy any of these albums at all, sticker or no sticker.) Last year, the Justice Department’s National Obscenity Enforcement Unit filed 120 indictments under federal obscenity laws — compared with 37 in 1988. And, taking their cue from the federal government, 26 states are considering laws that would apply harsher standards to pornography and make it all but impossible to rent adult films.

People for the American Way, one of many groups opposed to record labeling, says these proposals indicate ”an attempt to restrict radically the range of free expression.” But Missouri State Rep. Jean Dixon, a leading advocate of record labeling, counters that certain song lyrics can lead to ”perversion of the future leaders of our country.”

The bottom line is that within months, buying a record could require more ID than cashing a bank check, and renting certain videotapes may be akin to a black-market purchase — that is, if you’re even able to find those records or videos in your local mall. These restrictions would not come from letter-writing moms in Michigan or crusading conservative preachers. They would come from government intervention. Here is a status report on recent actions in federal and state governments to restrict what Americans can listen to and watch.

”Sexually transmitted diseases are at an all-time high,” Rep. Dixon says. ”(The) high school dropout (rate) is at an all-time high. Youth suicide is at an all-time epidemic proportion in America. All we have to do is look at the statistics and say, ‘Now, what in the world is wrong?”’

What is wrong, Dixon says, is linked directly to the music business, and she has made the mandatory labeling of records her top priority. Dixon was inspired by the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC), which, ironically, insists it favors voluntary labeling by the record industry over government- legislated labeling. In early 1989, Dixon became the first legislator to introduce a record-labeling proposal into a state docket. Then she faxed copies to legislators in nearly three dozen states, starting the current spate of bills. (That original proposal never came to a vote, and a slightly revised version was introduced by Dixon in January 1990.)

The proposed labeling legislation is worded differently in each state in which it has been filed, but the aim is similar: Large warning labels would have to be fixed under the transparent wrapping of all recordings that | contained ”unsuitable” lyrics. The fluorescent, nonremovable stickers would state that the records contained lyrics ”descriptive of, advocating, or encouraging” one or more of a checklist of horrors, including suicide, incest, bestiality, sadomasochism, sodomy, sexual conduct ”in a violent context,” ”morbid violence,” and the illegal use of drugs or alcohol. The label would not specify which offense is applicable to the particular album. The bills proposed in Missouri, Iowa, and Oklahoma add ”nudity, satanism, and adultery” to the list of possible offenses and also would prevent anyone under 18 from attending a concert showcasing an artist who ”encourages” any of them.

The record industry initially dismissed these proposals, but a Pennsylvania bill sailed through a house vote last December and now awaits a senate vote that could come as early as this month. In turn, legislators in Oklahoma, Missouri, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Tennessee, and Arizona have filed similar bills, with legislators in Hawaii, New Jersey, New Mexico, Michigan, Alaska, Alabama, Delaware, and other states standing next in line.

”If we haven’t accomplished anything else with this bill,” Dixon says, ”we have raised tremendous awareness across this country about what is going on in the record industry.” These activities, she says, involve the ”promoting (of) five major themes over and over again: rebellion, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and perversion, violence, and the occult.” Dixon defends labeling by detailing statistics about teenagers killing themselves while supposedly under the influence of heavy metal. She also points to lyrics of groups such as the platinum-selling 2 Live Crew (graphic references to a wide variety of sexual acts) and an obscure metal band, Rigor Mortis (which has a song called ”Bodily Dismemberment”).

Needless to say, the record industry does not support any of the proposals. ”Voluntary labeling is one thing,” says Tower Records President Russell Solomon, referring to the less obtrusive ”Explicit Lyrics — Parental Advisory” stickers voluntarily placed on select albums as a direct result of the PMRC’s 1985 ”porn rock” hearings. ”Mandatory stickering is another matter. Who’s to be the judge?”

The answer to that question is unclear at best. Although it is assumed that record companies would be responsible, the wording of the bills does not specify who would decide which records would be stickered or who would regulate the stickering. One factor is clear, though: Record store owners | would be held accountable for making sure the correct albums are stickered and that those stickers match the declared offenses as detailed by their particular state’s law. If they don’t, the clerks face jail terms and fines.

But labeling a record may not be as simple as Dixon and her followers believe. Advocates point to the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) G-to-X system as an example of voluntary, workable consumer information, but the proposed record labels would list all possible offenses without indicating which particular ones are mentioned in the lyrics. ”Stickering requires someone to interpret lyrics and decide which get a sticker, and that’s a subjective opinion,” argues Danny Goldberg, president of Gold Castle Records and manager of Bonnie Raitt and Belinda Carlisle. ”Song lyrics are interpreted differently by different people. There’s no comparison between song lyrics and movie ratings. Either there is nudity in a movie or there isn’t.”

Indeed, under current guidelines, labeled albums could include Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (for its title song about a serial killer), the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet (satanic reference), or almost anything by George Jones or Hank Williams (drinking songs). ”Every anti-drug song ever written would not be able to be sold to anyone under 18,” Goldberg argues. And what would happen if one of those records is Puccini’s classic opera Madama Butterfly, which ends with a suicide, or Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, which involves stabbing and shooting deaths? Rep. Dixon’s position is clear: ”If they need a label,” she says without pause, ”they need a label.”

That assumes the records in question would actually make it into stores. But in February, WaxWorks, a 119-store Kentucky-based chain, announced it would no longer stock any records with the voluntary PMRC-inspired labels now in use. As WaxWorks president Terry Woodward told the industry magazine Billboard, ”The best thing for us to do is not take a chance; we just can’t afford to.” Other chains, such as the Pittsburgh-based, 98-store National Record Mart, have made it a policy to ask customers for identification before selling stickered albums. Record store managers in malls are particularly susceptible to pressure; the sight of religious picketers outside their door doesn’t look good when lease renewals come around.

The creative process itself might also be affected. Will musicians start censoring themselves to avoid making an album that might be blackballed? Barry ( Lynn, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, thinks so. ”You’re going to tell people that the vast amount of human experience cannot be sung about,” he says.

Lynn, though, is convinced that any and all of these bills will immediately be found unconstitutional if they become law. ”Slapping on labels that are pejorative, that imply that records have ‘bad things’ on them, is a violation of the First Amendment,” he says. Meanwhile, the record industry and affiliated groups have begun to organize against government intervention — but in seemingly contradictory ways. The Recording Industry Association of America, the trade organization of U.S. record companies, is hiring state-by- state lobbyists, and an anti-censorship rally is being planned for April 12 in St. Louis with Don Henley, Don Johnson, and Alannah Myles, among others.

But at the annual convention of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) in March, the six major labels (CBS, WEA, MCA, PolyGram, Capitol, and BMG) announced their plans to design their own yellow-and-black Day-Glo stickers as a way to offset government intervention. Such a tactic would appear to put labeling back in the hands of the music industry, but it still would result in a large Day-Glo sticker affixed to ”questionable” albums.

Rep. Dixon feels that the record industry should be capable of policing itself. ”And if they can’t,” she says, ”then we’ll have to do something else.”