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The Sacramento Bee

March 26, 1998

Author: Mary Lynne Vellinga Bee Capitol Bureau []

Barry Bratt is convinced that the depressing, death-obsessed lyrics of punk rock songs played a role in his 13-year-old son’s suicide.    The Cameron Park resident, whose son Ben hanged himself last year, came to the state Capitol on Wednesday to support legislation that would bar state pension funds from investing in recording companies whose music denigrates women or describes such acts as murder, drug use, gang activity and violence against a particular group. Investments in retail companies that sell such music also would be banned.

The bill, AB 2059 by Assemblyman Keith Olberg, R-Victorville, was debated at a special informational hearing of the Assembly Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security Committee. The panel will vote on the bill at a later date.

Backers of the bill said they’re convinced that lyrics advocating violence, crime or suicide prompt youngsters to act out. “Good kids are becoming involved in some very bad activities,” Olberg said.

Bratt allowed that music alone wasn’t responsible for his eighth-grade son’s suicide. He said the boy was on anti-depressants and was doing poorly in school.  But Bratt thinks lyrics by bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Dead Kennedys and Marilyn Manson had “a big influence” on Ben, who was a talented guitar player.

“His friends think so, too,” Bratt said. “After his death, they threw out all their records.”

Also at the hearing were former gang members and the parents of Elyse Pahler, 15, a high school freshman from the San Luis Obispo area who was murdered by three boys who belonged to a metal band called Hatred.  Authorities said the boys thought they could score points with Satan by sacrificing a virgin.

Tony Tiujaga, 33, of Carson, who once belonged to the Bloods street gang, said rap music encourages inner-city kids to carry guns and use them.

“Everybody’s talking about packing – you got to be packing in the ‘hood,” Tiujaga said. “They’ve got songs that are saying, point blank, “blow their heads off.'”

Olberg’s bill is opposed by the $128 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System and by the recording industry, which says it would stifle free speech about society’s ills.

Karin Newman Krueger, a lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America, said the bill’s definition of “offensive” is so broad that “the state of California could not invest in any major entertainment company or conglomerate.”

Assemblyman Kevin Murray, D-Los Angeles, said the legislation unfairly targets rap music by African American and Latino artists. A packet of allegedly offensive lyrics passed out by Olberg’s office contained mostly excerpts of rap songs.

Music in the 1970s and ’80s by such white bands as Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osborne and the Sex Pistols also tended toward the anarchist and violent, Murray said, “but now that some black guys are doing this, it’s a horrible thing.”

Murray and other opponents of the bill also disputed the connection between listening to music and committing violent acts. “People are not doing this stuff because they listen to violent music; they’re doing it because they live in a violent world,” Murray said.

Added Hilary Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the Recording Industry Association of America: “The American Academy of Pediatrics lists 14 signs to look for in a troubled child, and music choice is not among them.”

A December 1996 advisory from the pediatrics academy states that no connection has been found between behavior and sexually explicit or violent lyrics. Nonetheless, the group advocates content labeling of recordings. The music industry has for the past 13 years used stickers to flag recordings that have explicit lyrics.

Olberg’s bill is one of two being circulated this year that would force state pension funds to divest from a particular industry. A bill authored by Assemblyman Wally Knox, D-Los Angeles, would bar the state from investing in the tobacco industry. Both bills are opposed by PERS, which cites its constitutional duty to serve the “sole and exclusive” interest of members by earning them the highest possible return.

PERS spokeswoman Patricia Macht estimated that a ban on investing in recording companies and retailers that purvey music with “offensive” lyrics could force PERS to sell nearly $1 billion in holdings.

She said PERS doesn’t pick individual stocks to invest in; instead, it buys shares of all the nation’s top-performing companies. Eliminating certain stocks and bonds from consideration “contradicts our whole investment theory,” Macht said.

The state Constitution allows the Legislature to prohibit certain investments by state pension funds “if it is in the public interest to do so” and doesn’t jeopardize the fund’s responsibilities to provide sound investments.

Only once has the Legislature ordered state pension funds to divest from a certain category of investments. The state funds were barred from investing in South Africa from 1986 until the fall of apartheid, Macht said.

If Olberg’s bill becomes law, which a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa said is unlikely, it will face an “instant” court challenge, Rosen said. She noted that state employees in Texas have filed a lawsuit in federal court over a similar statute banning state investment in record companies that produce “offensive” music.

“They want their investment funds invested on the basis of yield and safety rather than public policy,” she said.