David J. Phillip  /  AP
The Justin Timberlake-Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" spurred a move for a morality clause in Houston.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/18/2004 11:59:03 AM ET 2004-02-18T16:59:03

The fall-out from the Janet Jackson Super Bowl halftime fiasco continued this week. On Tuesday, officials from the Harris County Commissioners Court, who control Reliant Stadium in Houston, asked lawyers to research the legality of a "morality clause" for entertainers who perform there or at the old Astrodome in order to prevent any future "wardrobe malfunctions."

The idea was introduced by County Commissioner Steve Radack, who told the Houston Chronicle, "I'm not trying to dictate society's morals, but I say this: as a member of the Commissioners Court ... I believe it is clearly appropriate to set some standard."

He's proposing a law to limit suggestive lyrics, dance moves, nudity and abuse of the U.S. flag. The reason the lawyers have been asked to look into the law is simple: it might violate First Amendment protections on free speech.

This kind of thing came up back in the 1950s when a young truck driver out of Mississippi named Elvis Presley exploded on the scene as the "King of rock and roll."

He toured the South performing in front of live audiences that became hysterical over his performance, which included a lot of hip swinging and other wild gyrations of his body that some considered suggestive.

When he first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show the cameraman was instructed to shoot "the King" only from the waist up. Another nationwide TV program tried to tame Elvis by having him sing his signature song to a real live hound dog while dressed in a tuxedo.

Eventually, TV audiences were able to watch Presley in his entirety. But decades later, the overwhelmingly hostile public reaction to the halftime performance during the Super Bowl has spurred a new call for curbs in television programs.

Hostile response
Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson were performing a flirtatious duet toward the end of the halftime show, with Timberlake singing "Rock Your Body," and the lines he sang at the moment of truth were, "I'm gonna have you naked by the end of this song."

With that, Timberlake reached across Jackson's leather gladiator outfit and pulled off the covering to her right breast, which was partially obscured by a sun-shaped, metal nipple decoration.

CBS, the network that aired the Super Bowl, quickly panned away from the shot, but the moment has now become infamous, spurring protests from viewers and the FCC alike and apologies from everyone involved in the incident, including from Jackson, Timberlake, CBS and MTV.

Of course, it really hit home in Houston and that's why county officials are trying to find out what they can legally do to prevent something like that from happening again.

Since the performances take place in taxpayer-supported public facilities, county commissioner Radick says somebody needs to spell out what is acceptable behavior in venues supported with tax money.

Next test: Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
The next big event at Reliant Stadium is the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

All performers at that event already have a morals clause built into the contract they sign which requires them to perform "in a manner that is not offensive to any social or ethnic groups and that is suitable for a family audience."

Rodeo officials tell performers if they don't like it, they don't have to perform at the annual event.

But it could be tougher for a government to impose such a rule and Radack acknowledged that telling the Chronicle, "I think you have to be very careful going in and drawing the line. I think it needs to be drawn in a prudent and rational way. But clearly, there needs to be a line."

The Harris County Attorney's office is expected to get back to the county board in the near future to tell the commissioners whether they can draw such a line.

Jim Cummins is the NBC News Bureau Chief in Dallas.


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