Rap music calls on the Supreme Court: are violent lyrics protected under the First Amendment?

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Well renowned artists such as Yo Gotti, Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill and 21 Savage submitted a legal brief in March asking the Supreme Court to hear the case of Pittsburgh rapper Jamal Knox.

Knox was sentenced two to six years in prison in February 2014 for lyrics in his song, “F*ck the Police,” released in 2012 under his stage name Mayhem Mal.

The song features lyrics naming and threatening local police officers, resulting in him being convicted on two counts of terroristic threats and two counts of witness intimidation. The song includes the line “Well your shift over at 3 and I'm gonna f*** up where you sleep.”

Another rapper in the song stated that he was “strapped” like Richard Poplawski, a man who killed three Pittsburgh police officers in 2009. Following the discovery of the song, one of the officers retired from the police force due to the intimidating lyrics and the other asked for time off from his job and security detail to keep him and his family safe.

Knox was awaiting trial for previous charges involving the officers named in the song. The song itself was released by a third party through YouTube and the police later found the video while Knox was awaiting trial.

Multiple artists started taking legal action, arguing that Knox’s lyrics were protected under the First Amendment because they should be considered political speech.

There has been an ongoing dilemma between rap music and the First Amendment since the genre’s creation in the late 1970s. Some legal battles include the hip hop group N.W.A. in 1989 with their song of the same name as Knox’s, and the 2015 case Elonis v. United States, where a man posted lyrics threatening his ex-wife and others.

All of the rulings on these cases have been unclear, with no definitive answer as to whether rap lyrics are protected. While hip-hop music is not an inherently violent genre, there are subgenres that reflect a rough lifestyle that some rappers have been forced to live and are reflected in their music.

In the legal brief presented by many popular rappers, they stated that although lyrics may be offensive to some, it is “ a work of poetry … it is not intended to be taken literally, something that a reasonable listener with even a casual knowledge of rap would understand.

On April 15, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear Knox’s case. Every year the Supreme Court receives 7,000 to 8,000 petitions to hear a case and on average accepts 80 cases. While the ruling on the Knox’s case will be upheld and he will serve time, this reopens the discussion about protecting rap lyrics and avoiding music censorship.