A case in Omaha reopens the explicit content debate -- Government offices and the RIAA crack down on album sales

Here’s a familiar scenario: A record-store clerk is busted for selling a 2 Live Crew album to a teenager. It happened in 1990 in Florida, and it happened again last month in Omaha. A conservative organization called Omaha for Decency sent teens into area record stores to buy 2 Live Crew’s Sports Weekend, which carries a ”Parental Advisory — Explicit Lyrics” warning sticker. The result: Four record-store owners were charged on April 22 with selling obscene material to a minor. If a jury finds the material obscene, the owners (who pleaded not guilty on May 5) each face a $1,000 fine and one year in jail.

Once again, conservative groups are on the warpath against raunchy pop records, and as it did two years ago, record-labeling fever is breaking out in government offices around the country. In March, Gov. Booth Gardner of Washington signed into law a bill that makes it illegal to sell ”erotic” albums to minors (the material must first be ruled obscene by a state judge). The law goes into effect June 11. Proposed bills in Illinois and Louisiana would prohibit the sale to minors of any ”explicit” albums that carry the record industry’s own ”parental advisory” warning stickers. And another proposal in Illinois calls for mandatory government-sanctioned labels on the same kind of albums.

The music industry has heard this song before. In 1990, 22 state legislatures considered passing laws requiring government labels on records to indicate the music contained references to alcohol, drugs, bestiality, and other objectionable subjects, with stiff penalties and jail terms for record company and store executives. Bowing to this threat, most major U.S. record companies agreed to place uniform black-and-white parental-advisory stickers on any record with a four-letter word or lyrics about graphic sex and the like. The proposed bills died off, at least for a while. To date, about 225 albums — from the latest Guns N’ Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers records to an opera based on the life of Charles Manson — have been stickered.

”We feel the parental-advisory logo has been successful in educating parents about the lyrical content of records,” says Michael Cover, director of state relations for the Recording Industry Association of America. ”We’re giving them a tool.” Omaha City Councilman Steve Exon, who was behind the sting, believes the stickers currently in use are helpful but still make it possible for children to hear the music. ”The invention of the Walkman and other technology lets kids listen to music in the privacy of their bedroom,” Exon says. ”They aren’t putting 2 Live Crew on the Victrola for the family to listen to.”

On May 7, a U.S. appeals court in Florida overturned a 1990 ruling that 2 Live Crew’s notorious As Nasty As They Wanna Be was obscene. Given that obscenity cases are based on ”community standards,” though, that may be small consolation to Omaha’s Rod Ferguson, who faces criminal charges as co-owner of Pickles, two of whose stores are involved. ”My business can’t stand the bad publicity that comes from a trial, so I’m scared to death,” says Ferguson, whose stores continue to stock 2 Live Crew’s Sports Weekend. In fact, he says, they have sold ”an awful lot” of them in the weeks following the bust. Ironically, the album was a stiff when it was released last year, barely selling 500,000 copies, compared with nearly 2 million for Nasty.