Album cover of Blizzard of Ozz
The Issue: Audience Reaction to Art: Who is Responsible?
Art is intended to be evocative. But if a work of art evokes a violent or otherwise illegal response, should the artist be held responsible for the actions of his or her audience? The U. S. Supreme Court held that expression advocating violent or otherwise illegal behavior only loses First Amendment protection if the expression is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless behavior, and is likely to result in such action.
On the evening of October 26, 1984, nineteen year old John McCollum shot and killed himself while listening to the recorded music of rocker Ozzy Osbourne. John’s parents filed a lawsuit against Osbourne. The central premise of each cause of action was essentially the same: the lyrics, tones, and pounding rhythm of Osbourne’s music had the cumulative effect of encouraging self-destructive behavior. The McCollums asserted Osbourne knowingly cultivated an audience of young people struggling with the transition into adulthood and, therefore, should have known that Osbourne’s music would likely result in self-destructive behavior on the part of fans such as John.
Is it protected?
The trial court dismissed the McCollum’s complaint holding that the First Amendment was an absolute bar to the lawsuit. “[M]usical lyrics and poetry,” said the court, “cannot be construed to contain the requisite ‘call to action’ for the elementary reason they simply are not intended to be and should not be read literally….” The court went on to state that even if the lyrics were expressing the view that suicide is an acceptable alternative to life, Osbourne has the constitutional right to express that view.