Are Threats in Hip-Hop Lyrics Protected by the First Amendment?

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case of rapper Jamal Knox v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The case stemmed from Knox’s song “F*** The Police” which was recorded after he was arrested in 2012 for gun and drug charges. Prosecutors accused Knox of terroristic threats and intimidating witnesses, and he was sentenced to 2-6 years in prison. However, Knox’s attorney argued on appeal that the song was constitutionally protected through the first amendment.

FACTS 

Pittsburg rapper, Jamal Knox, who performs under the name Mayhem Mal, was convicted on two counts of terroristic threats and two counts of witness intimidation for his rap directed at the police in his song titled “F*** the Police”. He recorded the song with fellow Pittsburgh rapper Soulja Beaz (Rashee Beasley) while the two were awaiting trial on gun and drug charges from 2012. The prosecution focused on lines delivered by Knox that named the arresting officers, and used threats of violence, such as Let’s kill these cops cuz they don’t do us no good / pullin out your Glock out ’cause I live in the ‘hood.

FINDINGS 

In 2014, a trial court found Knox guilty and prosecutors charged Knox with issuing terroristic threats and intimidating witnesses stemming from his song titled “F*** the Police”. The officers named in the song had testified that the song made them nervous and fearful, and one officer said it figured in his decision to leave the police force. Knox had argued that his conviction should be overturned because he said the prosecution violated his free speech rights and that he did not intend any harm against the officers. Rappers and other interested parties across the country were watching the case because they argue that rap is both art and political statement. Knox appealed his conviction to the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Courti upheld the trial court’s decision that the lyrics constituted a “true threat.” and rejected Knox’s contention that the song was “artistic in nature” and “never meant to be interpreted literally.” The court also held that the song specifically portrayed violence toward the police and included personalized threats through mentioning the officer’s names. As a result, Knox appealed to the Supreme Court.

 In his appeal, Knox argued that the Supreme Court needed to resolve the issue of whether the government in a criminal threat case must only prove the “speaker’s subjective intent to threaten,” or must prove “objectively that a reasonable person would regard the statement as threatening.” The U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the case of Pittsburgh rapper Jamal Knox.

WRAP-UP 

This case garnered attention this year when groups of other artists including big industry names such as Meek Mill, 21 Savage, and Chance the Rapper contributed support in the defense of Knox’s lyrics as “a work of poetry.” The group argued that the song is not intended to be taken legally and that it is referred to as a political statement rather than a threat of violence.

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to decline hearing Knox’s case, some may question: What is the appropriate standard to determine if and when a statement constitutes a true threat of violence that will not be protected by the First Amendment?