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2 Live Crew beats the rap

The lead defense attorney said the First Amendment was a wall built to protect people like Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew. Prosecutors claimed the wall hid something vile and obscene. Either way, it's a wall still standing.

A Broward County jury Saturday ruled that the nasty-talking rap group was innocent of violating obscenity laws. It was a landmark case that coupled freedom of speech with a rap group known for lyrics that degrade women and tout violent sex.

The jury of four women and two men came back with the verdict of not guilty after just two hours of deliberations. Crew leader Campbell jumped to his feet and raised his fist in the air. The tiny, crowded courtroom erupted in cheers. One woman said "Thank you Jesus." Members of his family started to cry.

One elderly black man said he had seen a similar battle over the right to say what's on your mind almost a quarter-century ago, in places like Birmingham and Selma, Ala. He said it never should have gone this far.

"This scared me," said Phil Sears, 65, a retired mailman. "I came every day (to court), not because I like rap or what these boys say. But because I believe you got the right to say it."

It wasn't a trial with the consequences of some others, no life in the balance. But it was a case that

challenged a basic freedom in a place that had already once struck that freedom down _ Broward County.

The three group members faced a single misdemeanor count each for a June 10 performance in a Hollywood club. Their album Nasty As They Wanna Be had already been judged obscene by a previous Broward jury _ the first recorded music ever deemed obscene.

But not one of the four women and two men agreed the live performance on trial here broke any state law. Jury foreman David Garsow said simply: "It was not obscene. As the cross section of the community that we are (five whites, one black, ages 24 to 76), it was not obscene."

Defense attorney Bruce Rogow said the courtroom victory offers no protection from other assaults on free speech, even though it might set some kind of precedent. Conservative Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro has made Broward a sort of battleground for such issues. Rogow, who teaches law at Nova University in Broward County, has emerged as his antithesis.

"This is a big case, a serious case," said Rogow. "There is a lesson here for everyone. When you live in this country, no matter what color you are, you have a right to speak."

Campbell put it like this: "Whupped 'em, didn't we bro'."

Prosecutor Pedro Dijols said he doesn't believe the case will affect similar cases. He doesn't believe his office or the sheriff's office will back off from investigating and prosecuting obscenity cases because of one loss.

When asked if the group would tone down its act to avoid another courtroom challenge, Campbell replied sharply: "What?"

The band will not change its lyrics or put more clothes on its female dancers. And they will play Broward again, Campbell said.

The trial cost the group thousands of dollars, interrupted a tour and has caused some clubs to cancel dates because they don't want the bad publicity. So the Crew did not come away untouched.

"That's okay," Campbell said. "We can get the money back."

As for his immediate plans:

"I'm going to Disney World," he joked.

Campbell, Mark Ross and Chris Wongwon were charged with a misdemeanor _ carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine _ after an adults-only performance at a Hollywood, Fla., nightclub June 10, four days after a federal judge ruled the group's album was obscene.

The prosecution had to prove that the group's performance lacked artistic or political value, and that it sexually excited the audience. All six jurors said they failed all around.

At one point in the show, the group shouted: "F--- Navarro." That seemed pretty political to 76-year-old juror Helena Bailie.

"They had been challenged by this man (Navarro), and they were thumbing their noses at him," the retired sociologist said.

Navarro could not be reached for comment.

As for the dirty words sexually arousing anyone who heard them: "Not at all interested," she said.

It was an ugly, tedious trial. The only real piece of evidence was a muddy, scratchy, sometimes inaudible tape, filled with foul language that was played and replayed, then wound back and played again.

It was just the most noticeable part of an investigation rife with ineptitude. The prosecution had two witnesses, both Broward deputies, neither articulate or compelling. One, detective Debbie Werder, smacked on her chewing gum during cross-examination and had to be asked one simple question three times.

The tape itself was handled by several people and left, at one time or another, on kitchen tables and in the trunks of cars parked outside in the summer heat.

To arrest 2 Live Crew, Navarro sent eight deputies, paid $20 each for them to go undercover into the concert, and bought them drinks with county money. And even though eight people attended the concert, only two testified and only one made a recording _ and it was a bad one.

Dijols said prosecutors could have done a better job of gathering evidence.

But jurors said the muddled picture they got was not the reason for the verdict. They understood that dirty language and dirty dancing went on.

"This was a plain, simple, nasty act. That's all it was," said Dijols, an assistant state attorney.

But the jury sided with Rogow's rebuttal.

"The First Amendment does protect speech, even nasty speech, even four-letter words," Rogow said. "The purpose of the Constitution is to keep the state from not liking something and putting people in jail.

"It's not a matter of taste. If you don't like it, you don't have to go to their concerts. But to deny those people who want to do it is to deny their freedom of speech. That's not what this country is about."