Two young men did not kill themselves because they heard alleged subliminal messages in the heavy metal music of Judas Priest, a judge in Reno, Nev., ruled yesterday.
Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford called the ruling a victory for rock-and-roll.
"It's a great day for Judas Priest. It's a great day for heavy metal and artistic expression," Halford said in a telephone interview from Mexico. "Still, my main worry is that it seems as if the judge may have left the door open on subliminal messages."
Lawyers representing the families of two Nevada youths in the product liability suit claimed a subliminal command saying "Do it" and backward messages promoting self-destruction concealed in Judas Priest's 1978 album "Stained Class" caused the suicide of Raymond Belknap, 18, and the attempted suicide of James Vance, 20, in 1985.
In a 93-page decision, Washoe District Judge Jerry Whitehead said that he could hear the subliminal commands, but that the words "Do it" were a combination of the singer's exhalation of breath on one track and a guitar on another track. He also ruled that the families of the two young men failed to prove that such messages were a precipitating factor in the shootings.
Judas Priest and CBS Records, the band's record company, denied using subliminal messages.
In his conclusion, Whitehead wrote that the "plaintiffs lost this case because they failed to prove that the defendants intentionally placed subliminal messages on the album and that those messages were a cause of the suicide and attempted suicide involved in this case. However, it is unknown what future information, research and technology will bring to this field."
Whitehead said that although the court respected the First Amendment right of artists to express themselves, he declined to dismiss the case because he believed that subliminal messages do not share such privileges.
The judge suggested that subliminal communication is not protected because it does not advance any of the purposes of free speech and because it is a violation of privacy deviously employed to manipulate the subconscious.
As the trial progressed, the plaintiffs also accused the band of inserting a broad array of backward slogans promoting suicide throughout the album.
Attorneys for Judas Priest argued that the shootings were motivated by complex social and psychological problems -- including unstable family environments, poor academic performance, drug abuse and a history of violent and dysfunctional behavior -- which allegedly plagued the two young men since childhood.
The ruling, which attorneys for the families say they will probably not appeal, leaves open the door on a broad new category of product liability lawsuits, according to one of the attorneys in the case. Kenneth McKenna, who represented the mother of one of the dead youths, said he already has several similar cases on tap in other states.
"I believe this is an excellent decision because it should promote people to pursue more of these cases in the future," McKenna said. "Sooner or later, science is going to catch up with reality and we'll be able to prove these cases in a courtroom."
While the judge ruled in favor of the band and CBS Records, he imposed a $40,000 "sanction" against the record company, saying that it had refused to comply with court orders directing it to supply certain material needed to decide the case.
Belknap's mother, Aunetta Roberson, said she was pleased the judge found that the subliminal messages existed. "I hope that this case will cause other mothers to begin paying attention to what their kids are listening to," she said.
Mike Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, suggested that the Judas Priest lawsuit is likely to put a damper on in-house company decisions regarding what is considered appropriately protected artistic expression.
"Companies are starting to become very critically attuned to their liability regarding this situation," Greene said.
He cited the establishment of in-house lyric review panels at various companies as the most recent indication of industry caution.
"People won't admit it," Greene said, "but taken into consideration with the controversy surrounding 2 Live Crew, I think the Judas Priest decision is going to cause artists to think twice about promoting lyrical messages that call for action, whether those messages speak to suicide or violence."
But Gail Edwin, vice president and litigation counsel for CBS Records, said she did not believe the trial would endanger creative expression.
"The suit was certainly unfortunate, but it will not have a chilling effect on the conduct of business by CBS Records," Edwin said. "Still, in my opinion, the plaintiffs attempted to make heavy metal music a social issue in this case. They pursued it with an evangelical fervor in which they pitted the music against what they proclaimed as Christian values."
Danny Goldberg, chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and president of Gold Mountain Entertainment, said that he views the Judas Priest lawsuit as but one example of a national crusade bent on destroying free speech in entertainment.
"This has been the most absurd courtroom episode since the Salem witch trials," Goldberg said. "It's not just some weird isolated incident. It is part of an escalating climate of repression."