Because the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, some opponents of music censorship believe that the courts can force a store to sell albums its management deems objectionable or forbid groups from burning records. The Supreme Court, however, can only step in if someone appeals a government decision, rather than a community one, to censor music; such appeals rarely reach the highest court in the land, since individual state governments can devise their own obscenity laws and penalties for violating them. Fighting censorship thus poses a catch-22, as musicians and concerned citizens can't deny a school's right to ban a concert on its premises and would face an uphill battle overturning a state's mandates on decency.
Music censorship first reared its head in the 1950s, when rock and roll's growing influence threatened white, middle-class values. The 1960s saw the FBI's involvement in musician's personal and political lives, as officials began keeping tabs on Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon. Song references to sex and drugs tormented censors throughout the '60s and '70s, eventually giving way to hysteria over lyrics promoting suicide and devil worship in the 1980s.
In 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center, led by a cadre of politicians' wives, called for the recording industry to place Parental Advisory stickers on potentially offensive albums. Instead of quelling concerns, the stickers unleashed a barrage of state laws that required retailers to regulate distribution or pay the price (a hefty fee or even jail time). In the meantime, the banned albums benefited from the notoriety. Ultimately, community and federal censors have threatened civil liberties while entangling their organizations in a costly fight to maintain an ambiguous definition of decency.