FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- Just outside Courtroom 354, a steady stream of spectators drops by to get autographs from the accused. The lead defendant, wearing white high-top athletic shoes and a beeper, tells French television he expects to lose. "Entertainment Tonight's" cameras whir when he stalks cursing from the courtroom as the charges are read. They whir again four days later, when he is threatened with contempt for showing up late. Two spectators, both young men, are reprimanded for acting like infants in the courtroom. Literally.
"You are welcome to watch the trial," admonished Broward County Judge June L. Johnson, "but I'm confiscating your baby bottles." When the bailiff took their beverages, they left.
So goes jury selection in the obscenity trial of the 2 Live Crew.
Anyone who hasn't heard of the rap band and its controversial lyrics has not read a newspaper or watched television in the past six months. Talk about media saturation. Since three of the four band members were arrested in June and charged with staging an obscene performance at a Hollywood, Fla., nightclub, they have been starring attractions on the Phil-Oprah-Geraldo circuit and regular fodder for everything from Variety to the grocery store tabloids. Sales of their album that contain the offending lyrics have soared, now approaching 2 million.
Their trial, which resumes today, is now six days old and no jurors have yet been seated. The affair, with its circuslike atmosphere, has progressed in fits and starts, with lawyers on both sides battling in hearings and emergency appeals as if this were a capital murder case. By the end of last week, Broward County Judge June L. Johnson was holding her head in her hands and sympathizing with one of the potential jurors, who said she was, after five days of sitting around, too frustrated with the whole thing to be impartial toward anyone.
Aside from its show-stopping antics, the trial is being watched for its implications to First Amendment law, and those, observers say, could be chilling. Supporters argue that the rappers, who are black, were singled out for prosecution. After all, their performance was staged at an adults-only club. The band had been playing the same show for a year without incident before their arrest. The American Civil Liberties Union took out a full-page ad in the Miami Herald last week, headed "Is 2 Live Crew Getting a Bad Rap?"
The rappers worry that their future was foretold 10 days ago, when, in the same courtroom, a Broward County record store owner was swiftly convicted of selling an obscene record -- their top-selling "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" -- to an undercover detective. The jury was all white, upper-middle-class. As he strode from the courtroom, Charlie Freeman, the record store owner, swore.
"They don't know nothing about the goddamn ghetto," Freeman shouted. "The verdict does not reflect my community standards as a black man in Broward County."
The issue of race is one of the main thrusts of the rappers' defense. Bruce Rogow, the lead defense lawyer, will attempt to show that the music of the 2 Live Crew is regarded as humor in the ghetto, from which the band members emerged. The trouble started only when the rappers became so successful that their albums began selling to white middle-class America.
"Race and obscenity are inextricably intertwined in this case," Rogow said. "The words on the album are said on the street in the ghetto all the time. They are a joke, just regular jive talk, and they're a foreign language to white, upper-middle-class America. A lot of people say, how come nobody's going after Andrew Dice Clay? There are white people who say these same words."
But Assistant State Attorney Pedro Dijols said race is a smoke screen lobbed by the defense to avoid confronting the real issue of obscenity. "I'm a black Hispanic and it's insulting to me and the court that they can bring this up," said Dijols. "This is just another sidetrack to the real issue of the obscene performance."
Court was barely underway when the band's leader, Luther Campbell, stormed out, cursing loud enough to be heard. Later he explained he was "upset" when the judge read aloud three lines of the lyrics that ask a woman, in the crudest possible language, to perform oral sex.
Campbell was offended by the a cappella delivery.
"I have a problem by somebody reading the lyrics from my records," he explained later. "My records are not meant to be read."
Then the lawyers took over the contentiousness.
The prosecutor wanted to unseat the judge, arguing that she would be too friendly to the defense team because she was once Rogow's law student at Nova University. The defense lawyer wanted to eject five prospective white jurors because they had no black or Hispanic friends.
"They are saying these people cannot be fair about this case because they are white. That's racist," said Dijols.
The rappers' arrest followed a springtime free-for-all in Florida, in which Gov. Bob Martinez, a Coral Gables anti-porn crusader and a publicity-hungry sheriff played starring roles.
Jack Thompson, a lawyer in Coral Gables, launched a campaign against the 2 Live Crew and sent the lyrics of their album "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" to Martinez and every county sheriff in the state. Thompson compares himself to Batman -- a protector of citizens -- and sometimes sends other lawyers a picture of Batman along with legal documents, just so they'll know whom they're dealing with. Thompson made the 2 Live Crew his own crusade.
Martinez found the lyrics "vulgar," and directed the State Attorney's Office to investigate the band. The state declined, saying it was up to the locals.
With that, Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro stepped into the spotlight and warned record stores that if they sold the album, they faced arrest.
Luther Campbell sued Navarro in federal court. He lost. U.S. District Judge Jose Gonzalez ruled the album obscene.
Four days later, Navarro's dragnet staked out Club Futura in Hollywood, Fla., armed with tape recorders to collect the evidence.
After the show, as Christopher Wongwon, Mark Ross and Luther Campbell cruised along Hollywood Boulevard in their Jaguar, the deputies swooped in for the arrest. The charge, a misdemeanor, carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail or a $1,000 fine.
Afterward, the principal players hit the road. Thompson played "Nightline," while Navarro and Campbell turned up, like a traveling point-counterpoint, on "Donahue."
If the characters seemed unlikely, so did the setting. The South is full of dry counties with strict local laws, but Broward is not one of them. The county has a history of tolerance, and has been home to more than the usual array of porn shops and sex parlors. Broward has seen topless check-cashing stations, topless laundromats, even a topless doughnut shop, come and go.
Toward the end of last Friday's court session, one potential juror raised his hand and asked to speak. "I don't know if I could make a decision for everyone in this community," he said.
One final footnote regarding the man who started it all, Jack Thompson. The Miami Review, the city's legal journal, reported that the Florida Bar Association had dropped an inquiry -- requested by a party to a lawsuit involving Thompson -- into whether the crusading lawyer should be declared mentally incapacitated. A bar-appointed psychiatrist and psychologist examined him and found no evidence of mental dysfunction.