First Amendment and Free Speech

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States as provided by the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits the United States Congress from making laws that among other things violate the freedom of speech. The United States Supreme Court later interpreted the provisions of the First Amendment as applying to both the judiciary and the executive arms of government. In this regard, the Supreme Court uses the Miller test to establish whether the content of a given form of expression be it speech, writing or music, borders on obscenity. The First Amendment does not guarantee the protection of any obscene expression.

The Miller test is attributed to the Miller v. California (1973) case.  It comprises of three parts. The first test is based on whether by applying the accepted community standards, the average person would find the expression as a whole geared towards arousing unwholesome interest in sexual matters. The second test looks at whether the expression deliberately depicts any sexual conduct as outlined by the relevant state law. The final test is aimed at determining whether the expression as a whole has any literary, artistic, political or scientific value (Emerson, 1963).

Music is an artistic form of expression that has been existence for ages. It is used to express social, political or sentimental messages. In this regard, music is also a form of expression. However, just like any other form expression, the message passed is sometimes controversial and in extreme cases obscene hence generating resentful views. This has led to the need for the regulation of the music industry in the form of censorship. This entails partial or total banning of a song, or part thereof or an album from the public. The censorship of music began in the fifties when certain members of society began to express concern that some kind of music was promoting indecent acts, promiscuity and lewd dancing (Patrick, 2004).

Modern genres of music such as hip hop and rock have been blamed for promoting violence and irresponsible sexual behavior among the youth in society. This has necessitated its censorship in one form or the other. This is mainly done by censoring particular words which are deemed to be offensive. The radio stations play these songs but censor some words which are seen to be insensitive by some members of society.  The Wal-Mart Stores also do not stock albums that contain obscene language which they claim is part of their policy of promoting good family values.

In the recent past there have been incidences where the censorship of music has been enforced. In February 2000, violence broke out at a skating rink in New Iberia, Louisiana, in the parking lot outside the Skate Zone. The manager called the local Sherriff’s office as the situation threatened to get out of control. The sheriff and his officers arrived and ordered the skating rink to be shut down as he objected to the music being played. The officers then conducted a search of the premised and confisticated sixty pre-recorded CD’s arguing that the cause of the fight was the music that was being played.

Six days later, with the skating ring still shut down; the sheriff summoned the owner of the premises and his manager. He produced a warrant of arrest and took the two into custody. The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana took up the case and argued that the state had violated First Amendment rights the two by arresting them on the grounds of the music played that night (Blink, 2005). The State courts dismissed the charges and ordered the sheriff’s office to pay for the damages.

In another incidence, rapper and proprietor of Aftermath Records, Dr. Dre, filed a federal suit against the City of Detroit.  This was after two police officers and a top city aide barred him from showing a video during the Up in Smoke tour. According to the officers, the video was obscene as it featured women who were half nude and a staged liquor store robbery. He claimed damages of $ 25 million on the grounds that the officers had violated his First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

Various civil rights groups, which either protest against or advocate for censorship have emerged in the recent past. One of the most prominent freedom of expression and anti-censorship organization is Rock Out Censorship –ROC which fights for the lyrical liberty of artists. ROC teams up with other music rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union-ACLU in addressing this issue. One of ROC’s major issues is the warning labels placed on albums to warn parents there is explicit material in an album (Davis, 2002). They believe that this is just another excuse to introduce other forms of music censorship. The Parents’ Music Resource Center is one of the pro censorship organizations. It calls for the labeling of all mucis with explicit content and for parents to monitor what their children listen to. ROC dismisses these sentiments claiming that music usually has a very special place in the youth and such actions only deny them a chance to express themselves in the way they know best.

Clare Boothe Luce, an advocate of the anti-censorship movement, famously stated that censorship, like charity should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there. Music is a form of artistic expression and therefore it might use various ways to pass on a message. Most youths attest to the fact that music has been their source of strength in times of despair. The content of a song might be offensive to one person but relevant to another person. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.  We may not like what another person says but we have a duty to defend the freedom of expression.  The censorship of music, which is a form of expression, is a direct violation of the first amendment.


Davis, M. About R.O.C. 2002 Retrieved 4 February, 2008 from

Patrick. B. Controversial Music, The Beat Goes On. 2004 Retrieved 4 February, 2008. From

Hoffman, H. Wal-Mart Blues. 2005. Retrieved 4 February, 2008 from

Blink. Music Censorship. 2005 Retrieved 4 February, 2008 from

Emerson, T. I. Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment. Yale Law Journal. 1963.


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