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Blizzard of Ozz

Album cover of Blizzard of Ozz
Ozzy Osbourne
(click here to hear a clip from the song "Suicide Solution")

The Issue:   Audience Reaction to Art: Who is Responsible?

Art is intended to be evocative. But if a work of art evokes a violent or otherwise illegal response, should the artist be held responsible for the actions of his or her audience? Is this what Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. had in mind when he stated, "[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic"?

In the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the U. S. Supreme Court held that expression advocating violent or otherwise illegal behavior only loses First Amendment protection if the expression is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless behavior, and is likely to result in such action. Although court cases involving a variety of art forms have been brought alleging that a particular work was the cause of harmful behavior by those exposed to it, few of these cases have met the stringent requirements of intent, imminence, and probability set out in Brandenburg v. Ohio.

The Case:   McCollum et. al. v. CBS, Inc., et. al.

On the evening of October 26, 1984, nineteen year old John McCollum shot and killed himself while listening to the recorded music of rocker Ozzy Osbourne. That night, John listened repeatedly to several of Osbourne’s albums, including Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of a Madman, and Speak of the Devil. With his headphones on and the music playing, John placed a .22-caliber handgun to his head and took his life.

John’s parents filed a lawsuit in a California civil court alleging several causes of action against Osbourne and his music label, CBS Records. The central premise of each cause of action was essentially the same: the lyrics, tones, and pounding rhythm of Osbourne's music had the cumulative effect of encouraging self-destructive behavior. The McCollums asserted that CBS Records and Osbourne knowingly cultivated an audience of young people struggling with the transition into adulthood and, therefore, should have known that Osbourne's music would likely result in self-destructive behavior on the part of fans such as John. At the time of his death, John was suffering from alcohol abuse and emotional problems. The McCollums claimed that their son, and listeners like him, were particularly susceptible to being influenced by Osbourne's music because of their emotional instability.

The lawsuit focused largely on a song off the Blizzard of Ozz album entitled “Suicide Solution,"* which, according to John's parents, advocates suicide. Although John was not listening to "Suicide Solution" at the time he shot himself, he had been listening to it earlier in the evening. Included in the song is a 28 second instrumental break which contained the following lyrics not included in those printed on the album cover:

You really know where it's at
You got it
Why try, why try
Get the gun and try it
Shoot, shoot, shoot (repeated for approximately 10 seconds).

The trial court dismissed the McCollum's complaint holding that the First Amendment was an absolute bar to the lawsuit. On appeal, the California Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision holding that there was nothing in any of Osbourne's songs that could be characterized as a literal command to an immediate suicidal act, nor was it intended as such. "[M]usical lyrics and poetry," said the court, "cannot be construed to contain the requisite 'call to action' for the elementary reason they simply are not intended to be and should not be read literally.... Reasonable persons understand musical lyrics and poetic conventions as the figurative expressions which they are." The court went on to state that even if the lyrics were expressing the view that suicide is an acceptable alternative to life, Osbourne has the constitutional right to express that view.

*Lyrics to “Suicide Solution”:

Wine is fine but whiskey's quicker
Suicide is slow with liquor
Take a bottle drown your sorrows
Then it floods away tomorrows
Evil thoughts and evil doings
Cold, alone you hand in ruins
Thought that you'd escape the reaper
You can't escape the Master Keeper
Cause you feel life's unreal and you're living a lie
Such a shame who's to blame and you're wondering why
Then you ask from your cask is there life after birth
What you sow can mean Hell on this earth
Now you live inside a bottle
The reaper's traveling at full throttle
It's catching you but you don't see
The reaper is you and the reaper is me
Breaking law, knocking doors
But there's no one at home
Made your bed, rest your head
But you lie there and moan
Where to hide, Suicide is the only way out
Don't you know what it's really about.

You really know where it's at
You got it
Why try, why try
Get the gun and try it
Shoot, shoot, shoot

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