Though the First Amendment to the Constitution clearly states that the U.S. Congress “shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech,” free speech is widely understood to have its limits. It is dangerous and potentially criminal, for instance, to yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. But what about yelling “$&%#@!!” in a crowded nightclub? Lenny Bruce and other comedians tested the limits of that practice in the 1960s, but it was not until the late 1980s that the issue of obscenity came front and center in the world of popular music. The group that brought it there was 2LiveCrew, a hip-hop outfit led by Luther “Luke Skyywalker” Campbell. On June 10, 1990, just days after a controversial ruling by a Florida federal judge, Campbell and two other members of 2LiveCrew were arrested on charges of public obscenity after performing material from their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be in a Hollywood, Florida, nightclub.
United States District Court Judge Jose Gonzalez had set events in motion three days earlier in a 62-page written opinion that began, “This is a case between two ancient enemies: Anything Goes and Enough Already.” At issue in the case before Judge Gonzalez was whether the songs on 2LiveCrew’s album As Nasty As They Wanna Be were obscene and therefore not protected by the First Amendment. Applying a standard established by the Supreme Court in its landmark Miller v. State of California case, Gonzalez ruled that As Nasty As They Wanna Be violated local “community standards” of decency without possessing any mitigating artistic merit. Two days later, a Fort Lauderdale record-store owner was arrested for selling copies of the 2LiveCrew album, and the day after that, Campbell and his cohorts were arrested.
Civil libertarians and prominent academics rose immediately to the defense of Campbell et al., making legal arguments in support of their right to perform and sell songs like “Me So Horny” and “Throw The ****.” Ultimately, those arguments prevailed, as the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Judge Gonzalez’s order and the United States Supreme Court declined to reconsider that ruling. Predictably, the biggest winners in the case was 2LiveCrew. The publicity surrounding their legal battle helped make a multiplatinum smash hit out of As Nasty As They Wanna Be, despite a near-total lack of radio play. As for Luther Campbell and his band mates, all charges against them were dropped.