Criminal charges were filed Wednesday against Jello Biafra, lead singer of a San Francisco hard-core band, and four others in connection with a sexually explicit poster included in the group's latest album.
The Los Angeles city attorney's office filed charges of distributing harmful material to minors against Biafra (under his true name, Eric Boucher), two record company executives, the head of the company that distributed the album in Los Angeles and the owner of a firm that inserted the posters into the album.
The charges grew out of a complaint made in January by Mary Sierra of Sylmar, Calif. Her 14-year-old daughter had purchased the album -- "Frankenchrist," by the group the Dead Kennedys -- as a birthday gift for her 11-year-old brother. Inside the album, Sierra discovered a 20-by-24-inch reproduction of a painting by the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, depicting in clinical detail 10 sets of male and female genitalia in various sex acts. Giger won an Academy Award for his visual effects for the film "Alien."
Sierra filed a complaint with the state attorney general's office, which referred the matter to local authorities. In mid-April, police raids were conducted in San Francisco and Los Angeles on Biafra's home and the offices of his record company and a distributor; copies of the album and poster were seized, along with information relating to their distribution.
"This is the first time I know of we've ever done this and the first time I know of that an individual has ever complained," said Deputy City Attorney Michael Guarino in a telephone interview yesterday. Guarino conceded that the album itself is clearly protected by the First Amendment, but said that the poster is "not a communication of anything of value" and that a section of the state's penal code prohibits distribution of material "that the average adult Californian would find inappropriate for distribution to a minor."
The charges, Biafra responded, represent "a trickle down from a power play by the religious right to impose censorship, via ratings and arrests, on musicians, filmmakers and writers whose points of view they don't agree with . . . The First Amendment is what's on trial here, and we are merely their first pigeon."
*There had been a sticker on the album stating that "the inside foldout to this record cover is a work of art by H.R. Giger which some people may find shocking, repulsive or offensive. Life can sometimes be that way."
As a result of the raid and on the advice of lawyers, the Giger poster has now been removed from the album, "as a precautionary measure, not as an admission of guilt," Biafra insists. Instead, a sheet has been inserted in the poster's place, offering to send consumers a copy of the poster if they sign a letter saying they are over 18. Also included are Biafra's side of the story and "a beginner's history" of the censorship movement in the United States.
Biafra and the others face arraignment on July 3. Although the charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $2,000 fine, Guarino says he "probably wouldn't ask for anything near maximum for one count. It would be a little irresponsible in a situation like this, based on one act of distribution."
Explaining the decision to bring charges, Guarino said: "We're just trying to make the point to the Dead Kennedys and others that we won't look the other way. But we're not going to make a lifetime occupation out of this type of action. It would be fair to say that we look at this as a cost-effective way of sending out that message."
"Were this poster not a part of the album package," Guarino added, "the city attorney's office would clearly have no problem with its kindergarten nihilism."