"Is this America?" asked Robyn Blumner, executive director of the state American Civil Liberties Union chapter. "These things happen in totalitarian societies where certain ideas may not be expressed upon penalty of law."
An all-white jury convicted Fort Lauderdale record store owner Charles Freeman, 31, of obscenity Wednesday for selling the album "As Nasty As They Wanna Be" by the black, Miami-based rap group on July 8. Two days earlier, a federal judge in Broward County ruled their lyrics obscene and banned the sale of the album in Broward and two other Florida counties.
"It's the first time in (U.S.) musical history that a piece of work has been found to be obscene," said Trish Heimers, spokeswoman for the Recording Industry Association of American, a Washington-based trade association for U.S. record companies.
"There are not small steps toward censorship, and I would most certainly characterize this as censorship," she said.
Band members appeared at a news conference before their show at a Niagara Falls, N.Y., nightclub but they would not discuss the case or their own upcoming obscenity trial in Miami in any detail.
"We feel that we have to do what we have to do, and that's make the same records that we've been making," said David Hobbs, the group's disc jockey. "That's it," he said.
Hobbs, who spoke for the group, said the musicians feel they were just a convenient foil for the anti-obscenity movement.
"If it wouldn't have been us, it would have been somebody else," he said. "Someone's always going to be the target. It just happened to get pointed in our direction."
The group's lyrics include sexually explicit language and have been criticized as promoting violence against women, a charge Hobbs rejected. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that material could be found obscene if it has no artistic meritand appeals solely to prurient interests.
Broward Sheriff Nick Navarro, who led the prosecution case, greeted the verdict by saying the system worked: "This was never a case of censorship but rather one man flouting the law. The First Amendment is alive and well."
Donald Wildmon, founder of the conservative American Family Association based in Tupelo, Miss., saw the conviction as a sign of a national trend against obscenity and pornography: "There's definitely a shift in attitudes in America about this kind of trash."
Heimers argued that a recording should be judged for both musical and lyrical content, and "by the very nature of having both, it can't be deemed as obscene. The music, no matter what the lyrics, is not without artistic value."
She said the music industry was prepared to assist Freeman with financial and legal help. Freeman's lawyer promised to appeal the misdemeanor conviction, which carries a possible one-year jail sentence and $1,000 fine.
"The precedent has been set that it's OK to find music obscene and that is wrong," Heimers said. "Any country that allows the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) to have a TV show on public access should have the 2 Live Crew available."
"Obviously we're shocked and dismayed over many elements of the decision, and there's not much in life that shocks me," said Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences in Burbank, Calif.
Greene criticized "the extremely narrow view that the judge and jury exhibited" in convicting Freeman and questioned "how an all-white, predominantly female jury can determine what does and does not constitute artistic merit in a primarily inner-city, black music form."
"Today the victim is a little guy who sells records, but we're sure the target is a black form of music and freedom of expression," Greene said.