Rap lyrics and the First Amendment won’t be in the spotlight at the U.S. Supreme Court next term.
The justices denied review in a rap artist’s appeal of convictions for terroristic threats and witness intimidation based on one of his songs that allegedly threatened to kill police.
Jamal Knox performs under the stage name “Mayhem Mal.” He wanted the justices to settle “once and for all” whether, to establish that a statement is a true threat unprotected by the First Amendment, the government must show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as a sincere threat of violence, or whether it is enough to show only the speaker’s subjective intent to threaten.
The case “raises a critically important and frequently recurring First Amendment question that has intractably divided federal courts of appeals and state high courts,” Knox argued in his petition seeking high court review.
“The constitutional question here implicates the validity of countless convictions under myriad federal and state threat statutes,” his petition said. “Allowing the government to convict and incarcerate people for speech that is not objectively threatening is contrary to this Court’s precedents and basic First Amendment principles.”
In April 2012, Knox and another individual were arrested by Pittsburgh police and charged with, among other things, possessing controlled substances and possessing an unlicensed weapon. They later wrote a rap song about entitled “F**k the Police,” what Knox says was “an obvious homage to the world-famous rap song ‘F**k tha Police’ by the rap group N.W.A., which Rolling Stone hailed as one of the ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time.’”
“Consistent with the rap music genre,” Knox says, the song “contains violent rhetoric about police generally as well as the two Pittsburgh police officers involved in their arrest specifically.”
It included lines—without the hyphens—like “Your shift over at three and I’m gonna f--k you up where you sleep.”
But the lyrics “were never meant to be read as bare text on a page,” Knox argues. “Rather, the lyrics were meant to be heard, with music, melody, rhythm, and emotion.”
Pennsylvania officials contested Knox’s characterization of the facts and the law.
They said that nowhere in the state court’s opinion “does the court state that it was irrelevant to its analysis whether an objective, reasonable person would find threatening the lyrics of Knox’s ‘F**k the Police,’ wherein Knox stated that he was going to murder two named officers who had pending cases against him while also mentioning that he knew where those officers lived and what time their shifts ended.”
The case is Knox v. Pennsylvania, U.S., 18-949, review denied 4/15/19.
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