Quantcast
Connect with us

Rap music and threats of violence: A case for the Supreme Court to decide

Published

on

Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize last year and Eminem set a record in 2019 for streams on Spotify. But the acceptance and embrace of rap music in mainstream culture isn’t shared by everyone – and that sometimes includes the police.

Controversy between the police and rappers has gone on at least since N.W.A. released “F–k tha Police” in 1988. In fact, scholars Charis E. Kubrin and Erik Nielson contend that “to this day, rap is largely defined by its hostility toward law enforcement.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Now the Supreme Court, including one justice nicknamed “the Notorious RBG” – a reference to the rapper called “Notorious B.I.G.” – has been asked to address that hostility and what it means via the case of Knox v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

As director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, I’ve often written about the complex relationship between rap music, free speech and threats of violence.

The Supreme Court has discretion not to take the case. It could decide whether to do so within the next few weeks. If it does choose to hear the case, it could have profound implications for freedom of speech in the United States. That’s because it concerns when people can go to prison for making statements that some considering threatening.

Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan ruled in a 1971 free speech case that ‘One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.’
AP file photo

Protected or not?

Last August, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld Jamal Knox’s conviction on the charge of making terroristic threats against two Pittsburgh police officers in a rap song he posted on YouTube.

ADVERTISEMENT

Taking a page out of N.W.A.‘s playbook, he had also called his song “F–k the Police” and directed it at the officers, who had earlier arrested him and another rapper on drug charges.

So what did Knox say in his rap that was interpreted as a threat and landed him in trouble with the law? Here’s a snippet in which he names the two officers:

This first verse is for Officer Zeltner and all you fed force b—-es/And Mr. Kosko, you can suck my d–k you keep on knocking my riches/You want beef, well cracker I’m wit it, that whole department can get it/All these soldiers in my committee gonna f–k over you b—-es/F–k the, f–k the police, b–ch, I said it loud.

ADVERTISEMENT

This may offend, but as the Supreme Court wrote in 2017, “speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.” For example, the Court protected the right to protest the Vietnam War by wearing a jacket reading “F–k the Draft” in a public courthouse.

Knox now wants the nation’s highest court to hear his case. He argues his lyrics constitute free speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

While the First Amendment safeguards many types of speech, the Supreme Court holds that it does not protect true threats of violence.

ADVERTISEMENT

The problem is that the Court has not clearly defined just what constitutes a “true threat.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, “if there’s one First Amendment doctrine that screams out the loudest for clarification, it may well be true threats.”

The question in the Knox case is not whether the speech offends, but whether it is an unlawful threat of violence.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded it was a threat, partly because Jamal Knox identified specific officers by name and because the lyrics included the line “let’s kill these cops cuz they don’t do us no good.”

Is this a threat or just a young man in his 20s venting anger at government officials through a creative medium known for such rhetoric?

The court’s opportunity

As Knox’s attorneys argue in their Supreme Court brief, the Court has not clarified “whether, to establish that a statement is an unprotected ‘true threat,’ the government must show objectively that a ‘reasonable person’ would regard the statement as threatening, or whether it is enough to prove only the speaker’s subjective intent to threaten.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In other words, the lawyers are asking if the test of whether something is a true threat should be how a reasonable person would interpret a message like a rap song. Or does the actual intent of the speaker make a difference? Or is it some combination of both?

And if the state of the mind of the speaker does matter, does he just have to be aware that some people might find it threatening or does he actually need to want people to find it threatening?

These are difficult but important questions. People sometimes say things that are not intended to be taken literally.

ADVERTISEMENT

A jury, in turn, may be confused in sorting it all out.

This is particularly true with rap music. As one scholarly article by Adam Dunbar and Charis E. Kubrin notes, “jurors may not understand or fully appreciate rap music’s genre conventions and instead may conflate an artist’s lyrics with his or her true personality.”

A scholarly experiment by Dunbar, Kubrin and Nicholas Scurich suggests that the exact same lyrics were taken more literally by participants “when characterized as rap compared with country.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Technology compounds the problem. Some people may expect to find hyperbole or exaggerated expression on certain online forums such as Twitter. We live in an age of instant outrage on social media, and sometimes that outrage may appear threatening.

The danger is that a person could wind up in prison for something he intended as a joke but that a recipient interpreted differently.

Resolving what constitutes a true threat and just how a true threat should be determined has importance far beyond rap music. It extends to tweets, texts and Facebook posts in the digital age.

ADVERTISEMENT

With Jamal Knox’s case, the Supreme Court can use the opportunity to clarify what constitutes an unprotected threat of violence.

The Court, however, typically hears only about 80 cases each year involving full oral argument before the justices.

I believe that this case is important and should be heard because, as Knox’s attorneys argue, the definition of a true threat “implicates the validity of countless convictions under myriad federal and state threat statutes.”The Conversation

ADVERTISEMENT

Clay Calvert, Brechner Eminent Scholar in Mass Communication, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and legal efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. And unlike other news outlets, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from billionaires and corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click to donate by check.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. Unlike other news sites, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.



Report typos and corrections to: [email protected]. Send news tips to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

‘Alarming gibberish’: Trump dragged through gauntlet of mockery for raging impotently against Fed chair and China

Published

on

President Donald Trump attacked his own Federal Reserve chairman as an "enemy" of the United States amid his escalating trade war with China -- and other social media users were flabbergasted.

Fed chairman Jerome Powell refused to budge on interest rates, despite heavy pressure by the president in the face of a looming recession, and China retaliated against the tariffs Trump imposed with a new round of their own.

Trump lashed out at Powell, whose name he misspelled, and compared him unfavorably to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Continue Reading

Facebook

A look inside the Koch brothers’ secret plan to manipulate politicians — and how it fueled the rise of the radical right

Published

on

Democrats and Republicans are expected to spend about $1 billion getting their 2016 nominee elected. There’s a third group that will spend almost as much. It’s not a political party, and it doesn’t have any candidates. It’s the right-wing political network backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David Koch, expected to spend nearly $900 million in 2016. The Kochs’ 2016 plans come as part of an effort to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to conservative candidates and causes over the last four decades. The story of the Koch brothers and an allied group of billionaire donors is told in a new book by New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.” Mayer traces how the Kochs and other billionaires have leveraged their business empires to shape the political system in the mold of their right-wing agenda.

Continue Reading
 

Facebook

New video emerges of Trump blurting out anti-Semitic slurs

Published

on

President Donald Trump this week said that the majority of American Jews were "disloyal" to Israel because they support the Democratic Party -- but that's far from the first time that the president has made controversial statements that deploy anti-Semitic tropes.

The Washington Post has obtained a video clip from 2011 that shows Trump boasting about how great one of his golf courses is before saying that "even these spoiled, rich Jewish guys, they can’t believe how good this [course] is."

The clip was originally aired on the Golf Channel for the show "Donald J. Trump's Fabulous World of Golf."

Continue Reading
 
 

Thank you for whitelisting Raw Story!

As a special thank you, from now until August 31st, we're offering you a discounted rate of $5.99/month to subscribe and get ad-free access. We're honored to have you as a reader. Thank you. :) —Elias, Membership Coordinator
LEARN MORE
close-link
close-image