Music Censorship: Definition, History & Laws

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will look at the censorship of music, considering what it means and how it evolved by examining relevant laws and milestones over the years.

What is Music Censorship?

The American Civil Liberties Union has the mission of protecting the Bill of Rights, and it defines censorship as the ''suppression of words, images, or ideas that are 'offensive.''' This suppression and prohibition of offensive content can be done formally, through government-enforced laws, or informally, through social pressure. In the United States, government-sanctioned censorship is prohibited by the Constitution, so the more common way is through pressure from special interest groups.

History and Laws

The 1791 First Amendment to the Constitution states: ''Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.'' This effectively prohibits government censorship as a violation of free speech and for live performances the right to peaceably assemble.

The Radio Act and the FCC

In 1927, The Radio Act was enacted as a way around the First Amendment, allowing government control of what may be broadcast on the air. However, it wasn't used to levy a fine until 1970, when a station was fined for referencing sex. In 1934, Congress established the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to regulate communications. The FCC intervenes on explicit content in music publicly broadcast and has been involved in music censorship since its inception.

Some of the examples of FCC censorship of music include filming Elvis from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan show and forcing musicians like the Doors, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles to change lyrics referring to sex and drugs in their songs. In at least one example, the FCC succeeded in censoring dissident political views when they blacklisted a folk band, the Weavers, because of the band's leftist political opinions.


The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was founded in 1985 as a means of creating a social pressure group to censor music. The PMRC was the pet project of several politicians' wives, who often seek out some pet cause to support. The PMRC began under the guise of protecting children, but actually acted as a way for the government to intervene without violating the First Amendment. Because the leaders of the PMRC themselves were not typically government agents, but rather spouses who were ''private citizens,'' the PMRC was not an official governmental agent, even though they often had the power and support of those who were.

The PMRC advocated for explicit content warning labels like this one.
Parental Advisory label

The PMRC was responsible for creating the explicit content labels on music and creating the kind of consumer boycott pressure that forces stores like Walmart to avoid selling music with uncensored content. Interestingly, some say these labels have even backfired colossally and that often musicians with albums carrying the Parental Advisory label for explicit music see greater album sales than those who do not have the label.

Supreme Court Involvement

Because of the inherent divergence between constitutionally protected freedom of speech and the often objectionable content in music, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has argued over many music censorship cases. Justice John Marshall Harlan said, ''one man's vulgarity is another's lyric,'' and Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, ''I know it when I see it.'' Quotes like these illustrate the subjective nature of identifying what is explicit or worthy of censorship.

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