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Don't Blame the Rock Stars if a Fan Runs Amok

July 14, 1986|STEPHEN F. ROHDE | Stephen F. Rohde is an attorney in Century City who specializes in entertainment and constitutional law.

Last month a young man died in a fall at a rock concert in Long Beach. The autopsy found that he was intoxicated, but long before that report came out a parents' group with the ominous name of Back in Control was demanding that concert halls stop booking "heavy-metal acts" because they "incite youngsters to violence and destruction."

This meshes with the demand of some national parents' organizations for federal regulation of "offensive" lyrics in popular music, and with lawsuits that attempt to hold performers responsible for inciting anti-social or criminal behavior among their fans.

Rock performer Ozzy Osbourne (the headliner at the Long Beach concert) was sued last January by the parents of a teen-ager who committed suicide. They claimed that Osbourne's song, "Suicide Solution," led to their son's death. (Osbourne says that the song is anti- suicide.)

These efforts probably won't be deterred by a recent study by two Cal State Fullerton professors of sociology and criminal justice, who found that song lyrics about sex, drugs, violence and Satanism have little effect on the vast majority of teen-agers. Obviously, countless young people have listened to "Suicide Solution" countless times and gone about their lives as usual.

Fortunately, our Constitution and the judges who have sworn to uphold it will deter lawsuits and other forms of direct and indirect censorship.

Students of censorship will recall the landmark case involving NBC and the 1974 made-for-television movie, "Born Innocent." One scene depicted a 15-year-old inmate of a state home for wayward girls being sexually attacked by four other inmates. Three days later, at Baker's Beach in San Francisco, four juveniles made a similar attack on a 9-year-old girl. She and her mother sued NBC for $11 million, alleging that "Born Innocent" had "inspired" the juveniles to commit the crime.

After six years of time-consuming and expensive litigation, the California Court of Appeal declared that the First Amendment would not tolerate such a lawsuit. "Among freemen," the court held, "the deterrents ordinarily to be applied to prevent crime are education and punishment for violations of the law, not abridgement of the rights of free speech."

Blaming TV networks or songwriters for crimes or suicides committed by emotionally disturbed people, whether minors or adults, runs contrary to the principles that determine civil liability for personal conduct, and violates First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression. For this reason the courts cannot accept the notion that, because some people may react violently to what they see or read, a given book, movie or song can be censored or its creator made to pay damages.

To do otherwise would be absurd, for people might be provoked to violence by exposure to the most unlikely of stimuli. For example, it is reported that Heinrich Pommerenke, a German rapist and mass slayer of women, carried out his ghastly deeds after seeing Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments." During the scene in which women dance around the golden calf, all his suspicions about the opposite sex were confirmed; women, he decided, were indeed the source of the world's troubles, and it was his mission to execute them. Leaving the theater, he slew his first victim in a nearby park.

Similarly, John George Haigh, the British vampire who sucked his victims' blood through soda straws, claimed that he first experienced a thirst for blood on watching a "voluptuous" procedure--the drinking of the "blood" of Christ--in an Anglican communion service. Then there was the case of the Frenchman who confessed that he had killed his uncle by poisoning a bottle of wine, using a recipe from an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

Can anyone seriously contend that Cecil B. DeMille, the Anglican church or Dame Agatha Christie is civilly liable for having "incited" these disturbed criminals? That is exactly what the censorship forces suggest.

Unless our Constitution assures authors, producers and, yes, even rock musicians that the exposition of any idea--including depictions of the seamy side of human existence --will not subject them to multimillion-dollar verdicts, we will eventually find nothing but game shows on the air and nursery rhymes in the record stores.

The law is plain: Government cannot even forbid "advocacy of the use of force or the violation of the law," much less a mere description of it, except where such advocacy is, in the words of the Supreme Court, "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." Only the most rabid censor would seriously contend that rock musicians or television networks have intentionally directed their songs or programs in order to provoke criminal behavior.

There is a rising tide in this country for people to be held accountable for their conduct. The vast majority of California voters have just approved Proposition 51, which makes defendants in civil actions liable only in proportion to their degree of fault. And, under the doctrine of comparative negligence, even a plaintiff must bear his or her own degree of fault.

These doctrines apply with even greater force when First Amendment protection for freedom of expression is involved. The "deep pockets" of rock stars and television networks should not be plundered when emotionally disturbed people commit suicide or run amok.

As we approach the bicentennial of our Constitution, the American people should reaffirm the covenant made 200 years ago that their individual freedom of speech is protected only because their neighbors' expression of ideas--no matter how offensive, provocative, controversial, abhorrent or repulsive--are also protected by our cherished Bill of Rights.

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