Maryland state Del. Judith C. Toth (D-Montgomery) likes listening to rock music, but she says some of the suggestive lyrics shock her.
She surprised several of her fellow delegates this week by winning approval from the Judiciary Committee for her bill that would add recordings to the list of obscene matter that cannot be sold to anyone under 18 years old. The bill goes to the full House Wednesday for tentative approval.
Toth, to support her contention, cites the lyrics to songs such as "Darling Nikki" and "Sister" by Prince, which refer to masturbation and incest, and a song by a group called The Dealers, titled "Hump."
The Judiciary Committee, chaired by Del. Joseph Owens (D-Montgomery), annually chews up and spits back Senate-approved bills on similarly controversial subjects including seat belt regulation, victims' rights, drunk driving and child abuse. Toth's success with her bill -- which even Owens described as virtually unenforceable -- caught legislators by surprise.
Del. Samuel I. (Sandy) Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) delayed action on the bill on the House floor today by requesting the state attorney general's opinion on the measure, which he said has "questionable First Amendment merit."
"Does one song on an album make the whole album obscene?" Rosenberg asked.
Owens, who broke a tie vote of 8 to 8 in his committee to pass the bill, said that Toth's bill is no more or less enforceable than some legislation that has passed the House.
"Quite often in a book a few pages makes a book obscene," Owens said, adding that an attorney general's opinion is not likely to change the conclusion that his committee reached. "The attorney general is a competent lawyer," he said. "We've got competent lawyers in our committee."
Regulation of the measure, he said, would be a problem for record dealers to work out. "How do they do it when they sell [minors] alcohol?" Owens said. "How do they [regulate] it with books?"
The Judiciary Committee's close vote, however, demonstrated the conflict that remains about the bill. Del. Joel Chasnoff (D-Montgomery), a member of the panel who voted against the bill, speculated that election-year politicking played a partial role in the outcome in committee and will again when it comes before the full House.
"It is highly questionable whether the written word put to music constitutes pornography," he said. "It's too vague to meet a constitutional test.
"I know that a lot of people didn't really care for the bill," Chasnoff added. "But it does have a lot of political worth in an election year."
A state board of censors would have to be set up to determine what is obscene and how it should be handled, Chasnoff suggested.
But Toth said that "exactly what is obscene" would have to be determined by the courts. "It's not the kind of thing we're expecting to have a lot of prosecutions [on]," she said.
Under the bill, if a person was found selling a pornographic recording to a minor, as a first offense he or she could be fined $1,000 or spend a year in jail.
Record dealers have not testified against the bill, though one dealer from a local chain last week called Toth's bill "a repulsive concept."