Until last month, Melanie and Trevin Skeens regularly relied on Wal-Mart to help them screen music for their two children. They appreciated the store's family-friendly policy of refusing to stock CDs and DVDs that carry parental advisory labels warning about explicit lyrics.
But that policy failed the couple when their 13-year-old daughter bought the CD "Anywhere But Home," by the rock group Evanescence. As they played it in the car on the way home, with their 7-year-old son also listening, they were shocked to hear profanity in the song "Thoughtless." When they asked the store to take the CD off its shelves to protect other families, it refused.
Now the Skeenses, of Brownsville, Md., are suing Wal-Mart. They claim it deceived customers by carrying a CD with obscenities, violating its own promise to stock only clean music. They want the company to remove the music from its Maryland stores or censor the lyrics. The lyrics are already censored on the company's website.
Despite their objections to the explicit lyrics, the Skeenses say they like the band Evanescence. They also enjoy listening to music with their children. Until recently, Mr. Skeens, a drummer, had played in a popular band in nearby Hagerstown.
"He loves rock music and heavy metal music," Mrs. Skeens says. "We're avid music fans. It's not about censorship. We're not trying to change the words this band is putting out. We just want proper labeling of this CD."
"We don't want Wal-Mart to have to screen everything that comes into their store - that's absurd," says their lawyer, Jon Pels of Bethesda, Md. "However, we believe Wal-Mart knew it was offensive. If you went to the website to sample the song, you would hear no explicit language." When you go to [a store], the words are not dubbed out on the CD." The song also contains a reference to rape, he notes.
Wal-Mart defends its policy. "We set very high standards on what we carry," says Karen Burk, a spokeswoman for the company in Bentonville, Ark. "It wouldn't be possible to eliminate every word or image that an individual finds objectionable. What is objectionable to you might not be objectionable to me. So we rely on the industry to put these parental advisory labels on the music. This was an incident where there was not a label on it. We are certainly looking into the situation."
The recording industry introduced parental advisory labels in 1990 to identify music containing explicit lyrics, including references to violence and sex. Recording companies voluntarily label their music.
That ad hoc approach troubles Mr. Pels, the father of four children. "These parental advisory labels are not enforced the way they should be," he says. "You can reasonably rely on a rating of G for a movie. I don't feel you get the same kind of assurance with these CDs. The industry either doesn't take it seriously, or they purposely like to put out these albums."
Wind-Up Records in New York, the recording company that decided not to place a parental advisory sticker on the Evanescence CD, refused to comment on the case. So did the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Association of Recording Merchandisers.
Although the suit seeks damages up to $74,500 for customers who bought the CD in Wal-Mart's Maryland stores, that figure is simply a disclaimer common in consumer class-action suits, Pels notes. In reality, damages could simply reimburse each buyer for the cost of the CD. He insists that the legal action is not motivated by money.
The suit is provoking controversy, pointing up the challenges parents face in keeping children from being exposed to profanity, sex, and violence in music. Pels has received nearly 300 e-mails, some containing threats and calling him names. The Skeenses have also received negative mail.
Some critics regard the suit as an effort to censor music. Others charge that screening music is a matter of personal responsibility for parents, not a task for retailers. Still others think the Skeenses have overreacted.
"People will say, 'As if their 13-year-old child hasn't heard the f-word," Pels explains. "We're not claiming there's any emotional damage to the child. But there was also a 7-year-old in the car."
But he is gaining supporters, too. Parents as far away as California, Colorado, and Texas have called Pels to relate similar experiences in buying the Evanescence CD at their local Wal-Mart. Some want to join the suit.
Calling the parental advisory labels "in large part a fraud," Pels says, "I hope to expose that. These recording companies and Wal-Mart need to know that people rely on the labels."
He adds, "The Skeenses thought that Wal-Mart would have said, 'Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We'll do what we can about this.' "