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The scope of the First Amendment protection is not limited to merely serving as a bar to the prior restraint of speech, but it also prevents the assertion of a claim for civil damages. Musical composers and performers, as well as record producers and distributors, would become significantly more inhibited in the selection of controversial materials if liability for civil damages were a risk to be endured for publication of protected speech. The deterrent effect of subjecting the music and recording industry to such liability because of their programming choices would lead to a self-censorship which would dampen the vigor and limit the variety of artistic expression. Thus, the imposition of post-publication civil damages, in the absence of an incitement to imminent lawless action, would be just as violative of the First Amendment as a prior restraint.
The plaintiffs' decedent, John Daniel McCollum, shot and killed himself while lying on his bed listening to John Osbourne’s recorded music. Alleging that Osbourne’s music was a proximate cause of John’s suicide, plaintiffs filed suit against defendants Osbourne, CBS Records, CBS, Incorporated, Jet Records, Bob Daisley, Randy Rhoads, Essex Music International, Ltd., and Essex Music International Incorporated. The trial court sustained general demurrers to all causes of action and dismissed, on the grounds that U.S. Const., 1st Amend., was an absolute bar to plaintiffs' claims.
Did the First Amendment bar the plaintiffs’ claims against the defendants?
The Court of Appeal affirmed. The court held that under both U.S. Const., 1st Amend., and under Cal. Const., art. I, § 2, plaintiffs were barred from bringing any cause of action based on the musician's speech or expression. The court held that U.S. Const., 1st Amend. guaranties of freedom of speech and expression extended to all artistic and literary expression, including music, regardless of whether the speech or expression relates to citizen participation in governmental affairs. Although the court held that freedom of speech was not absolute, and may be regulated if it was directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action, it held that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the musician's music was directed or intended toward the goal of producing imminent lawless conduct, or that the music was likely to produce such imminent conduct. The court held that the scope of First Amendment protection was not limited to merely serving as a bar to prior restraint, but also precluded the assertion of a claim for civil damages. The court held that, even apart from the First Amendment bar, plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that defendants had any duty to them. The teenager's suicide was not reasonably foreseeable by defendants, there was no close connection between the teenager's death and defendants' composition, performance, production and distribution of the music, and no moral blame could be imputed to defendants. In the absence of allegations that defendants actually intended any harm to the teenager or any other listener, the court held that plaintiffs had failed to state causes of action for intentional incitement to suicide and for causing suicide in violation of Pen. Code, § 401.