Friday, June 8, 2012

The Obscenity Case Over ‘Penis Landscape’

(This is a paper that I originally wrote in 2008 for freshman year writing, I have made revisions based on the notes given to me from the professor after receiving my grade, as well as other miscellaneous changes such as grammatical corrections, and the addition of pictures. You can find the This American Life episode here, and the track Tales From the Trial from The High Priest of Harmful Matter is available on Spotify. There are no sources provided, because we were supposed to use 'signal phrases'. )
Poster of Penis Landscape, Original by H. R. Giger
            The story here I am about to share is about a musician who the government tried to censor. In the eighties when the PMRC and Tipper Gore tried to repress the American music industry, many small independent artists who would have trouble defending and representing themselves in a court of law were particularly targeted. This is a specific case of a punk rock musician who was singled out.
In 1986 the Los Angeles police department raided the home of Jello Biafra. Biafra, whose real name was Eric Bouher, better known as the lead singer for The Dead Kennedys, was asleep when the raid took place. He tells of the whole incident himself in the spoken word album “The High Priest of Harmful Matter”. The nine police officers that showed up with a search warrant told Biafra that he was under suspicion of distributing harmful matter. The officers didn’t find drugs or guns, they found records; which is exactly what they were looking for. What would follow in a year and a half would be a three week long court case that eventually would be thrown out by the judge.
            The specific record the police were looking for was ­Frankenchrist by the Dead Kennedys. Every Frankenchrist album comes with an insert poster done by H.R. Geiger entitled “Penis Landscape”. While many people might not know him, Geiger won an Academy Award for set design on the movie Alien, as well as the Oscar for best effects. When the deputy chief of Los Angeles County, Michael Guarino saw the insert, he knew right away he had an open-shut obscenity case.
Dead Kennedy's 1985 Frankenchrist
LP, complete with warning sticker.
When the police left Biafra’s home they had three copies of the Frankenchrist album, three copies of the Geiger poster, and Biafra’s private mail as well as business paper work; not only from his home, but also from Alternative records, the record company that Biafra owns. Biafra was one of four people charged with distributing harmful matter, including a wholesaler, a guy who worked at Alternative Tentacles, and a 67 year old man who owned the factory that pressed the albums. Each could expect maximum of a year in jail and a two thousand dollar fine for what the Dead Kenndys had to say with an album. On top of that the Dead Kennedys would be blackballed from any music distributor; otherwise that distributor or retailer would be subject to similar fines for carrying “harmful matter”. The only reason the record store where the album was purchased was not prosecuted, was because they had already taken all Dead Kennedys albums off their shelves.
            The next day the district attorney said that prosecuting the Alternative Tentacles label was “a cost effective way to prosecute”. By singling out an independent label it was easier to enforce the censorship the Parents Music Resource Center headed by Tipper Gore had in mind, rather than go after a multimillion dollar record company such as Time Warner, Sony or Universal, and their musicians such as Prince or Madonna. Rather than pay the fine, Biafra fought the case which ended up costing him over eighty thousand dollars. Fortunately, not only was the No More Censorship Defense fund put into action where fans from all over the world sent in money, but a California criminal justice lawyer toke Biafra’s case for free, the ACLU sent a lawyer as well.
            The trial itself dragged on for three weeks in L.A. Testimony was given by a young girl who said that the album was purchased for her little brother as a Christmas present by her mother, and that the album had been opened by someone before Christmas. This is allegedly when the mother then seen the Geiger painting. The mother then sent the artwork to the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. The reason why this story seems so bizarre is because it’s not true. Years later Guarino alleges that he had found and listened to the Frankenchrist album himself and thought it would be an easy case to take on. After three weeks, the media had turned the case into a joke and the jury was hung, in favor of acquittal. When Guarino wanted to retry the case, the judge threw it out.
In 1995 on the Chicago Public Radio show This American Life, Guarino and Biafra talked on the phone. Guarino had in his own words “changed his ways”, apologized to Biafra and said that at the time he thought he was doing the right thing and thought he had the moral high ground in the case. The funny thing was, Biafra thought he himself had the moral high ground as well. After a while the reporter that did the story, David Segal, said “the two started talking like old war buddies” and “it was hard to get a word in edgewise”. In the background a recording on their phone conversation can be heard where the two discussed everything from politics to going out and getting dinner with Guarino’s son, who incidentally ended up being a huge Dead Kennedy’s fan.
            So in the end Biafra and company got off, and in the process won a civil liberties battle on free speech. Had they lost, all Dead Kennedys material would have been deemed “harmful” in the state of California, if not the country, and anyone charged with distributing it would have been fined and possibly jailed. Guarino would have then gone on a harmful matter slash censorship triad and gone after other artists, and though it took three weeks, Biafra stopped him dead in his tracks. Jello Biafra fought the law, and Jello won.        

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