IT'S BEING suggested here and there that the arrests of members of the rap group 2 Live Crew in Florida this week -- and of record store managers who were selling their album -- are part of the larger confusion now surrounding the arts. But it is a mistake to think that the 2 Live Crew issue is in any way complicated or confusing. It's simple, and alarming: people are being handcuffed, jailed and facing criminal charges for words in a song. There is no question here of federal or state subsidy for expression, as in the National Endowment for the Arts controversy, and there is no suggestion that a community is being forced to watch, listen to or otherwise encounter materials that outrage its standards of decency, as they would on a broadcast or a billboard. Nobody has to buy or listen to 2 Live Crew's vile emissions unless that person wants to. We can't think offhand why anyone would want to: the lyrics are brutish and gross. But that judgment is not the sort that government needs to meddle in or that should be filling up the schedule of overburdened courts and sheriffs.
The obscenity law as it stands gives the court the right to regulate expression under an elaborate set of tests -- if "the average person, applying contemporary community standards" finds it appeals to prurient interest, if it depicts certain acts specifically defined by state law and if the work "taken as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." This notoriously difficult-to-pin-down definition has ledin this case to a lot of back-and-forth over whether songs like "Me So Horny" are artistic or humorous or whether thinking they aren't is evidence of cultural insensitivity to the rappers' art.
But even if the authorities can "regulate" this kind of material -- in the sense of shielding people from it who don't want to hear it -- they have no business singling it out from the many other groups that sing offensive songs or of using the courts' power to try to scare all those groups into singing a different way. The sheriff of Broward County, Fla., where the criminal charges were filed, has said he'd like to make an example of this group. The authorities in San Antonio, Tex., have obligingly followed suit, threatening to arrest owners of stores that carry 2 Live Crew albums.
But attempting to alter public and market tastes in this way is an emphatically inappropriate use of law enforcement muscle and a famously ineffective one besides. Everybody knows how sales shoot up when a book or record is "banned in Boston," and 2 Live Crew's backers have already reported the phenomenon. Anyone who wants to avoid these albums can do so, since 2 Live Crew has consistently used warning stickers on its albums saying the lyrics are explicit and unfit for children. The rest should be up to the buying or non-buying public, and the government should stay out of it.