Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer yesterday vetoed a controversial bill that would have required warning labels on recordings that "promote" potentially offensive topics such as deviant sex, violence, drug abuse, suicide or child abuse.
At a press conference in Baton Rouge, Roemer insisted that threatened economic boycotts against the state hadn't swayed him and said he vetoed the bill, the first of its kind in the nation to reach a governor's desk, because it was an infringement on constitutionally protected free speech. He said he hoped a voluntary labeling program recently implemented by the recording industry would be successful and warned that the issue would be revived in Louisiana and other states if that plan does not satisfy lawmakers.
While expressing support for the bill's aim -- to provide parents with information about "trash lyrics" on albums purchased by minors -- Roemer said that "in a free America where speech is constitutionally protected, the best method of informing the public -- and under broad parameters the only legal way -- is through voluntary compliance within industry standards, similar to what the movie industry has done with success.
"Voluntary labeling, therefore, honors our Constitution, and our freedom, and informs our parents and represents the way to go," he added. "How best to ensure voluntary compliance of labeling is the question. Unfortunately this bill at this time is not the best way."
Although the Louisiana labeling bill passed both chambers with more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto, the legislature is in recess and members would have to come back into session to override. No veto there has been overridden in this century.
In addition to requiring warning labels on recordings that deal with potentially offensive topics, the bill would have prohibited the sale of such recordings to people under 17. It would have made retailers, manufacturers and distributors subject to jail terms and fines of up to $5,000 for violations.
Joining Roemer at the press conference were Jay Berman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America; Tipper Gore, wife of Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) and president of the Parents' Music Resource Center; Mike Greene, president of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences; and Pat Moreland, president of the National Association of Retail Merchandisers.
The bill's sponsors, Rep. Ted Haik and Sen. Oswald Decuir, were not in attendance.
Berman applauded what he called a "courageous vote for freedom of expression in America." He called the veto "a vote of confidence in the people in this state ... for parents who have both the right and the responsibility to raise their children as they see fit." The veto, he said, sends "a clear message that the voluntary labeling system and artistic freedom can coexist without government intervention."
Tipper Gore, whose group was one of the first advocates of a voluntary labeling system, said, "We all recognize the concern to protect children from violent and explicit messages. But we don't want the government to legislate that concern." Both the PMRC and the National PTA expressed opposition to the Louisiana bill.
Roemer admitted having mixed emotions about the bill and insisted that "this issue will not go away... . Now, I speak not as a governor, just as a skinny, 46-year-old parent," he told reporters. "As a parent and as a governor, this legislation has presented to me my most severe philosophical conflict -- my strong belief about decency in the proper upbringing of my own children versus my strong belief and dedication to freedom of speech ... and my innate desire to avoid excessive governmental interference."
In announcing his action, the governor alluded to what some critics had cited as serious constitutional flaws in the bill, saying, "A veto would avoid a constitutional test, which the majority of experts believe we would lose and thereby take away the momentum for voluntary compliance. A veto would also avoid the negative economic and publicity consequences in the short term to our great state."
Passage of the bill provoked music industry protests, with threats of canceled performances and conventions. The Neville Brothers, favorite sons in Louisiana, called the bill racist. Roemer said it was not "my desire for Louisiana to become the legal battleground involving one of its most notable and thriving industries.
"Frankly, the economics had very little effect on my decision," Roemer said. "This is not about money to me. That's basically unimportant. Our image, the publicity surrounding it, does concern me... . Louisiana now more than ever needs to explain its positions, take its place in the world arena."
However, Roemer sounded several warnings, pointing out that there will be time to revive the bill, which would have taken effect in 1992, during the next regular meeting of the legislature and saying legislators would be monitoring compliance on the RIAA's voluntary labeling system. He also pointed out that Louisiana has "strong, constitutionally valid ... legislation prohibiting the display and distribution of obscene and pornographic materials, including recordings, to minors," and said he expected the state's district attorneys to prosecute violations of those statutes "just as was recently done in the state of Florida."
Ultimately, yesterday's veto killed a flock of birds with one stone, according to Roemer. "In short, with a veto, we maintain all our options; lose no time; allow maximum pressure on the industry to respond to our legitimate concerns; avoid a messy, doubtful, expensive constitutional test; promote voluntary labeling; and maintain Louisiana's strong musical heritage."
Roemer has said he will make a decision tomorrow on another bill that has led to threats of boycotts: the nation's strictest state abortion bill, which would ban all abortions except to save the mother and in some cases of rape and incest.