Litigating art

October 24, 1990|By The New York Times

EN ROUTE to acquitting the rap group 2 Live Crew of obscenity charges, jurors in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., asked and received the judge's permission to laugh aloud at evidence.

The testimony had them in stitches: prosecutors and detectives reciting, in dull monotone, raunchy lyrics from the performance that got the band arrested.

The trial shows the hazards of bringing obscenity laws to bear on speech. Speech is slippery and mutable; meanings change, depending on the speaker, the audience and, as this trial showed, the passage of time.

The group's crude sexuality shocked some at the start of the trial. By the end, as one juror said: "The words were just words."

These hazards are further underscored by the difference between this verdict and one delivered two weeks ago. Another jury, sitting in the same county and listening to the same lyrics, found the owner of a record store guilty for selling the album.

These contrasting verdicts point up the messiness of current obscenity law and the absurdity of litigating issues of what constitutes art and literature.

In Cincinnati, for example, prosecutors brought obscenity charges against a museum and its director for showing Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial photographs. "Community standards" were also at issue.

A jury exonerated the defendants -- just as the ordinary folk of Cincinnati had exonerated them by turning out by the thousands to view the exhibit. In Broward County, a packed audience, all 21 and over, had come to see 2 Live Crew play.

Yes, provisions should be made to keep sensitive material out of the hands of children. But common sense suggests that law enforcement dollars should be directed where they are most needed, not toward victimless misdemeanors.

Officials would do well to listen to one of the group's members, who said: "If people want to come and see us perform, you can. If you don't, you don't."

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