Punk Rock and Liberty: Testing the First Amendment

September 27th, 2012

Liberty Mosh Pit

Most musical genres have some artists who push boundaries when it comes to freedom of speech. For example, countless folk, hip hop, country, and rock musicians have unleashed songs packed with controversial content and innovative new intellectual concepts. Throughout contemporary history, the punk rock movement has been an especially vital force for the spread of new ideas that might otherwise not find an outlet.

Given that many consider punk to be more of a revolutionary musical ideology than a specific sound, bands in the scene are encouraged to push boundaries. Different generations of punk revolt against one another, each time challenging the community to face new issues. Throughout modern history, punk bands have been in a state of ongoing conflict with the government, continuously starting new conversations on how far freedom of speech can go.

Punk and Hardcore: Free Expression VS the State

Early NYC punks were edgy, but the national conversation reached a fever-pitch when hardcore bands from the west coast and Washington DC began to confront social and political issues using irony, satire, and other extreme devices. The Sex Pistols had already thrown the UK into a frenzy using similar means, and American punk and hardcore bands followed suit.

Bands like Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and Minor Threat kicked down conventional thought and challenged mainstream viewpoints on civil liberties, war, and social issues in an aggressive, confrontational style. In the past, musicians had typically done this using metaphors and other devices to soften the blow, but the hardcore movement was in-your-face. With time, certain people began calling for hardcore punk shows to be shut down, especially after witnessing the cathartic and contact-sport oriented dance styles that emerged among fans of the aggressive genres.

The above video shows local news coverage from the early days that was fair-yet-skeptical towards punk and hardcore. Moshing was largely at issue — a consent-based dance style that involves a contact element similar to sports like football. However, mosh pits are not nearly as dangerous as one might think. Mosh etiquette has kept countless teens safe throughout the years, and the number of injuries sustained in mosh pits are usually in line with those experienced by young kids playing football.

However, freedom of expression in dance was not the only front upon which the punk rock movement battled for liberty. With police often shutting down shows and causing riots, hardcore punk bands began to call them out in songs. Controversial political issues were rammed into the public consciousness through satire. This reached a climax when law enforcement began, in some cases, seizing bands’ masters and charging them with criminal offenses.

Social pressure forced punks out of mainstream venues. However, the market never fails to satisfy a need. People from all around the country found spaces which could be rented out for one-off shows, and punk bands from each city began trading shows with each other (to create an alternative, gray market touring circuit) and putting out records on their own independent labels. A DIY (Do It Yourself) ethos emerged, allowing bands more control over their music and message as they stopped looking to massive media-complex corporations for funding.

Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center

Tipper Gore began a censorship campaign in the mid ’80s, which largely backfired. One of the most critical moments in First Amendment history happened when Jello Biafra, frontman of the Dead Kennedys, was invited on the Oprah Winfrey show to debate Tipper Gore and others. Jello Biafra delivered a well-spoken, reasonable defense of freedom of speech, detailed how he had been attacked by the state for speech, and ultimately won a national debate on behalf of freedom in song lyrics. Check out the video below.

As a compromise, the RIAA began placing warning stickers on albums with adult-oriented content, and some record stores stopped carrying controversial artists. However, the national conversation had been won, and the state did not succeed in banning edgy music.

Ice-T Takes It to the Next Level

By the time he joined the metalcore band Body Count, Ice-T had already earned his place at the forefront of a growing gangsta’ rap movement with lyrics which pushed just as hard if not harder against social norms. Not only was Ice-T one of the Godfathers of an entire movement of edgy hip hop, but he was about to unleash arguably the most effective political hardcore punk song of all time.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, African Americans in Los Angeles faced serious police brutality. High profile cases of beatings of people like Rodney King had sparked a national outrage and thus a conversation on the limits of police power. Ice-T and Body Count tapped into the national mood and let loose “Cop Killer.” The song was meant to shock society into realizing that, for some people who look a certain way in a certain neighborhood, police encounters were attacks from which there could even be an argument for self-defense.

In the above video, you’ll notice that Ice-T urges the crowd to sing the chorus with him. The effort was to get people to realize that police officers must also respect human rights, and that it was OK to speak out against them when they step out of line. People are often afraid to film police officers or report them when they commit crimes. Ice-T intended to demonstrate that it was legal to get together in huge crowds and challenge law enforcement using free speech.

Ultimately, Body Count won the national conversation, freedom of speech prevailed, and people all over the nation found out about the struggles facing those who lived in South Central LA. Pussy Riot has sparked a similar level of debate in Russia just in the past year. There are many more examples, especially when you look at punk bands who challenged local governments, but, on the balance, the movement has been a crucial tool in the preservation of the First Amendment. Future blogs will detail similar defenses of freedom of speech by other musical movements, as many musicians have been put in a position to defend their compositions from an infringing state.

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About the Author: Barry Donegan

Barry Donegan is a singer for the experimental mathcore band Look What I Did, a writer, a self-described "veteran lifer in the counterculture", a political activist/consultant, and a believer in the non-aggression principle.