FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA., OCT. 20 -- The rap band 2 Live Crew was acquitted of obscenity charges today by jurors who said they regarded the rappers' nasty lyrics as art.
The jury, four women and two men, deliberated for two hours before returning the verdicts. Later, they explained in a news conference that they also regarded the lyrics as comedy, but certainly not obscene.
"In this day and age, this is the vernacular of the youth," said Beverly Resnick, 65, a retired hospital administrative assistant who dates her musical taste to the era of the jitterbug. "The fact a black group did it -- well, that is the way they talk."
"This is not something I want to see out in the malls," said Susan Van Hemert, a school guidance counselor. "But if you can fight and go to Iraq, you can go to a club."
The case drew national attention for its potential implications for freedom of speech and follows a conviction, under local obscenity laws, of a Fort Lauderdale record store owner for selling the group's album, "As Nasty as They Wanna Be." In Cincinnati earlier this month, a museum and its director were acquitted of obscenity charges for exhibiting several sexually explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.
The three rappers, Luther Campbell, Mark Ross and Christopher Wongwon, were charged with staging an obscene performance at a Hollywood, Fla., nightclub last June.
They were arrested four days after a federal judge here, in a civil suit, found the group's album obscene.
In their 45-minute adults-only show, the group performed sexually explicit lyrics while dancing on a stage before a raucous crowd. The lyrics depict oral and anal sex in crude and graphic terms.
Trish Heimers, speaking on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America, applauded the verdict. "Clearly this judgment should serve as notice to others trying to find music obscene that Americans believe very strongly in our First Amendment rights. . . . Whether they find it vulgar or obnoxious or lewd still does not mean that it is criminally obscene."
As the three verdicts were read, fans cheered and pressed forward in the courtroom to ask the trio for autographs. Beaming, Campbell turned to face the throng of television cameras and said, "I feel great, man."
Several of the jurors, including the only black, Gertrude McLamore, a retired cook, said they wanted to buy 2 Live Crew's album. "I like the music and my kids like the music," McLamore said. "I don't have the record now, but I might buy it."
Van Hemert said she might go to one of the group's shows. "We took the whole thing as comedy," she said.
The jurors said they found the defense's expert witnesses, a music critic and a black literary critic, enlightening but not necessarily persuasive.
Helena Bailie, at 76 the jury's oldest member, said she considered the performance politically motivated. She referred to several explicit phrases band members uttered about Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro and Gov. Bob Martinez (R).
"They mentioned the governor and the sheriff in negative terms," Bailie said. "I got the idea that the sheriff had spoken about closing them out or whatever. They were thumbing their noses back."
Jurors said they agreed with every one of the defense arguments, except one: race.
Because the rappers' music emerged from the streets of the black ghetto, the defense contended that the lyrics should not be judged by the standards of white culture. But the jurors said race had little to do with the case.
The trial may have been about lofty issues, but it unfolded in the state's lowest court, at the end of a long corridor of courtrooms where traffic offenses and other misdemeanor charges are tried.
Throughout, the language lost its shock value as it was read over and over in monotones of courtroom bureaucratese by nearly every participant in the trial except the three defendants, who did not testify. Broward County Judge June L. Johnson read a stanza demanding anal sex; Assistant State Attorney Leslie Robson, in her slight British accent, read words demanding oral sex. Another prosecutor, Pedro Dijols, read words demanding both. For a while, Bruce Rogow, the lead defense lawyer, spelled out the offending words, but later in the trial, he said them too.
But ultimately, they failed to have an effect on the jury. "After you heard them the first time, you'd heard them," Resnick said.
Johnson had told the jury that it should acquit the rappers if it found any artistic value in the group's show, even if it appealed to prurient interests. The usual test of obscenity is one put forth by the Supreme Court: Material is obscene if the average person, applying community standards, finds it is designed to stir sexual arousal, if it depicts sex in a patently offensive way and if it lacks literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Several of the jurors were critical of the state's case. The prosecutors' main piece of evidence was a microcassette recording of the performance, secretly taped by two undercover detectives who visited the club that night.
The rappers' words were hard to hear through the din of the screaming, chanting, cheering audience. At times, the efforts by the detectives to restate the lyrics alternated between comedic and tortuous.
After two weeks of trial, Rogow blasted the Broward County sheriff's office for making the arrest. "The state ought to spend its money on real criminal matters," he said. "This is a farce."
But the jurors disagreed. "It was a case that needed to be heard," said jury foreman David Garsow, a fan of classical music who said he listened to compact discs of Tchaikovsky and Broadway show tunes in the hotel at night where the jury was sequestered.
Garsow, 24, suggested that the community needed to reexamine its obscenity laws.
Resnick pointed out that the jurors differed from one another. "This might send a message of how a cross section of Broward County feels."
Staff writer Richard Harrington contributed to this report from Washington.