RIAA Trashes Its Legacy As 1st Amendment Supporter, Cheers On Global Internet Censorship [Op-Ed]


1Although the RIAA used to function as a major force in safeguarding free speech and the First Amendment,  the organization has of late taken a different direction, and become noticeably wish-washy on the issue of free speech, and in some instances seems even to be championing censorship.

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Guest post by Mike Masnick of Techdirt

It appears that many people don’t remember this, but the RIAA used to be a major force in protecting free speech and the First Amendment. It had many good reasons to do so, after all, since free speech is very important to all of the artists that the RIAA’s labels work with. Artistic expression — especially in the musical realm — has frequently come under attack by politicians and, for decades, the RIAA was actually a really important player in standing up for the First Amendment. See, for example, this 1992 article in the LA Times from then RIAA President Jason Berman, in which he lists out all the ways that the RIAA has been fighting censorship. Yes, these are all specific in protecting musicians, but they were some really important First Amendment arguments to be made in these areas:

  • In 1990, the RIAA kept lyric labeling legislation off the books in 22 states by implementing a state government relations program that became the RIAA’s second-highest-funded program, dedicated a full-time RIAA executive, consumed more than 80% of the association’s public relations efforts, mobilized grass-roots campaigns involving local retailers, artists, legislators and consumers and brought expert witnesses to testify before state legislatures.
  • Again in 1991, the efforts of the RIAA’s state government relations program defeated similar legislation in more than a dozen states.
  • This year, the program has been broadened by recruiting local legislative councils in 14 states resulting in defeated measures in New York, West Virginia, Arizona, Illinois and Missouri while the battle continues in Massachusetts, Louisiana and Michigan.
  • Throughout all of this activity, we’ve been a key player in opposing a federal bill creating third-party liability for sexual violence alleged to have been caused by music and other forms of entertainment.
  • We are a founding member and the principal funder for Rock the Vote, the music industry grass-roots organization aimed at defeating censorship and promoting participation by young people in the democratic process.
  • We formed the Coalition Against Lyric Legislation, an organization comprising more than 60 groups rallying to fight freedom of expression.
  • In addition to our amicus brief on behalf of 2 Live Crew, which raised the key issues leading to their exoneration in the 11th Circuit appeal, we contributed to the cost of the defense in the case, and have also committed legal and financial assistance to retailers in Nebraska and Florida.
  • Finally, we are proud to stand with the Washington Music Industry Coalition to seek a judicial declaratory ruling that the recently enacted erotic music statute is unconstitutional and should be stricken from the books.

2And that’s just one article — the first I found via a quick Google search. If you were interested in these issues in the 1980s, the RIAA was very involved in protecting the First Amendment.

So it’s fairly ridiculous (if entirely expected) that the modern RIAA is destroying that historic legacy of protecting free speech by now cheering on global internet censorship. As we’ve discussed, Canada recently launched a horrific attack on free speech, by saying that it can issue injunctions blocking entire sites globally on mere accusations of infringement. Let’s repeat that: the Canadian court is saying that, even before a trial has determined if there is actual infringement, it can order sites (in this case Google) to block entire websites (not just pages involved in the infringement) — and that it can do so globally. As we pointed out, this precedent is horrifying. What will happen when China demands all stories about Tiananmen Square be blocked globally? Or what happens when Saudi Arabia or Iran demands that pages supporting democratic reforms or LGBTQ rights must be taken down globally?

And yet, rather than condemn an overly broad ruling that will lead to global censorship, the RIAA sullied its own historical legacy and cheered on this global censorship ruling, claiming that it was “a win.”

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 And, yes, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the RIAA is so wishy-washy on free speech. Those earlier issues involved protecting musicians. Now, with the internet, it wants to stomp out free speech on the off chance that some of it might infringe copyrights and make RIAA members’ business models somewhat trickier. But that’s sad. A principled organization should stand up for what’s right — and not what’s politically expedient. And, really, this ruling will almost certainly come back to bite the RIAA as well. Not only will it lead to new, helpful, innovative platforms facing global censorship, is it that hard to believe that some countries may try to censor RIAA-connected artists, using this ruling as precedent?

These days, the bosses at the RIAA have got so much “piracy-on-the brain” that they seem completely unable to (1) stick to a principled position on the First Amendment or (2) see how cheering on global censorship might come back to bite them as well.