The “War on Drugs”, a phrase many know very well, was originally presented by President Richard Nixon in 1969. But, forty-two years ago today, Nixon spoke at a radio programming conference about the lyric content of music. If songs contained lyrics of a drug nature, they should be banned.
Nixon continued his war on music by enlisting Elvis Presley to help clean up and promote a positive message against drug abuse. In their meeting, dated December 21, 1970, the President and Elvis discussed the number of narcotic deaths, particularly those of teens, which occurred in New York that year, the importance of the entertainment industry (radio and television) assisting in the fight, the activities Elvis would do to help and the drug-related deaths of musicians Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
Nixon felt it was important for the entertainment industry, particularly musicians, to change their lyrics and promote a ‘get high on life’ message for teenagers who looked up to them. While in theory this idea works, in truth, life is far more complex.
The use of illegal as well as legal prescription drugs happens in all walks of life. From family and friends we know to entertainers and other artists, drug addiction has no boundaries. The censorship of lyrics Nixon advocated for merely violated first amendment rights. It did not, nor has it ever, prevent anyone from obtaining drugs or becoming addicted to them.
But, the President continued his push and made the “War on Drugs” official in 1971. This also lead to an FCC notice for radio broadcasters in March of that same year. Notice 71-205 reads:
A number of complaints received by the Commission concerning the lyrics of
records played on broadcasting stations relate to a subject of current and pressing concern: the use of language tending to promote or glorify the use of illegal drugs such as marijuana, LSD, “speed”, etc. This Notice points up the licensee’s long established responsibilities in this area…Whether a particular record depicts the dangers of drug abuse, or, to the contrary, promotes such illegal drug usage is a question for the judgment of the licensee…Such a pattern of operation is clearly a violation of the basic principle of the licensee’s responsibility for, and duty to exercise adequate control over, the broadcast material presented over his station…In short, we expect broadcast licensees to ascertain, before broadcast, the words or lyrics of recorded musical or spoken selections played on their stations. Just as in the case of foreign-language broadcasts, this may also entail reasonable efforts to ascertain the meaning of words or phrases used in the lyrics. While this duty may be delegated by licensees to responsible employees, the licensee remains fully responsible for its fulfillment…
Our “War on Drugs” continues in 2012 even though there is evidence that this war has not been as successful as some figured it would be. The censorship of lyrics did nothing to bring about the change Nixon desired. While he was very concerned with the welfare of our children and for that we can be grateful; his focus on lyric censorship should have been the least of his worries in regards to this controversial issue.
**As a side note, the author of this article found the FCC website with the office document for Notice 71-205, but when she clicked on it, it went to a “page not able to be viewed”. She was able to find the notice as a footnote in a scholarly article online written by Tom Wheeler. Tom Wheeler, Drug Lyrics, the FCC and the First Amendment, 5 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 329 (1972).
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