First Amendment

The Supreme Court Declines to Hear the Case of a Rapper Convicted for His Anti-Cop Lyrics

The case drew support from rappers like Killer Mike, Chance the Rapper, and Meek Mill.

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Rap music is once again in the middle of a First Amendment battle. This time, it's because the Supreme Court of the United States will not hear the case of a Pittsburgh rapper whose lyrics led to conviction.

The fight began with the April 2012 arrest of Jamal Knox, known to his fans as Mayhem Mal. Police Officer Michael Kosko pulled over Knox and a friend in a routine traffic stop. The pair sped away and then led a chase on foot after crashing the vehicle. After being captured and arrested, police found bags of heroin, cash, and a stolen firearm. Knox went by a false name until Detective Daniel Zeltner, who recognized both men, confirmed his real identity.

After Kosko and Seltner planned to testify against the pair in court, Knox and his friend released a song called, "Fuck the Police." Kosko and Seltner were mentioned by name in the song and their pictures appeared in an associated music video. The song lyrics depicted killing officers and informants, suggested that the rappers knew where the officers lived, and referenced a man who had previously killed three officers in the city.

The song, a court later ruled, met the definition of "true threats" and were therefore constitutionally unprotected. Knox and his friend were convicted of and jailed for making terroristic threats and intimidation. The rapper later appealed, saying that the conviction was in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech.

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear Knox's appeal. Though this means that the conviction will be upheld, Knox's case has effectively opened the door for the high court to further examine free speech, threats, and rap music.

The Supreme Court granted a motion to file an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief from last month.

The March brief was submitted by rappers like Killer Mike, Chance the Rapper, and Meek Mill in an attempt to ask the Supreme Court to hear Knox's case. The artists argued that rap music "has been the subject of unique scrutiny in determining when speech constitutes a true threat of violence and thus falls outside the ambit of First Amendment protection, in part because of its close association with the black men who historically have created it."

To paint a picture of the intense scrutiny that rap music faces, the brief compared rap to country music, which similarly "depicts sex, drug or alcohol (ab)use, poverty, and certainly violence." Despite their similarities, and the existence of murder ballads in country music, the brief cited a study where a social psychologist found disproportionately negative reactions when lyrics were presented as rap instead of country.

Of course, the brief also mentions N.W.A.'s "Fuck tha Police," which has endured its own First Amendment fight. The protest anthem expresses frustrations between the black American community and police officers by using court imagery—the rappers put the police on trial. The brief explains that the song could not "objectively" be seen as a threat.

Though justices ultimately declined to hear Knox's appeal, the Supreme Court heard a similar case several years ago. Elonis v. United States (2015) centered around the conviction of Anthony Elonis, who made Facebook threats against coworkers, his wife, police, and an FBI agent. The court ruled that a "true threat" conviction required proof of intent to act upon the threats. Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone voice of dissent, argued that posted threats were enough to establish intent.

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  1. Kosko and Seltner were mentioned by name in the song and their pictures appeared in an associated music video. The song lyrics depicted killing officers and informants, suggested that the rappers knew where the officers lived, and referenced a man who had previously killed three officers in the city.

    Just like every Country song you’ve ever heard

    1. Especially “Act Naturally” by Buck Owens. Dude was about to start some shit.

      1. You realize that is just hurtful code for being cisgender heteronormative, don’t you? Terrible advice in today’s Hollywood, anyway

        1. Such lyrics are almost as inappropriate as illegal “parody”; accordingly, they should rapidly be criminalized, banned and suppressed without any sort of higher court review at all. Are we supposed to spend a million taxpayer dollars on harmful appellate procedures again, as we were recently forced to do here in New York over a seven-year period? See the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

          https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

      2. “I’ll bet you I’m gonna’ be a big star
        Might win an Oscar .. you can never tell,
        …. and all I gotta’ do is … ACT NATURALLY …”

        obviously seditious, huh?

    2. When I was just a baby
      My Mama told me, “Son
      Always be a good boy
      Don’t ever play with guns, ”
      But I shot Frank Goodman on West Front St Reno NV 89523
      Just to watch him die
      When I hear that whistle blowin’
      I hang my head and cry

      First time I shot her
      I shot her in the side
      Hard to watch her suffer
      But with the second shot she died
      Delia’s gone, one more round
      Delia’s gone
      Delia Morgenstern of 5220 Park Place Apt 320. I think I’ll pay Bonesy McGraw $6k to go do it instead.
      Delia’s gone, one phone call, and Delia’s gone.

      Earl had to die
      Goodbye Earl Funchess of Culleolka, TN
      We need a break,
      let’s go out to the lake, Earl
      We’ll pack a lunch, and stuff you in the trunk, Earl
      Is that alright? Good! Let’s go for a ride, Earl,
      Earl’s body was submerged just off Flower Branch Rd a half mile from County HWY 302
      The First Amendment is great, Earl, hey hey hey

      1. Outstanding, Nash.

        1. Out in the Reconquista town of El Paso
          I had a strong heterosexual attraction to a cisgendered latinx

          Then I paid some thug to shoot a guy drinking with her

  2. The thing is, if the specific officers were listed, with obvious allusions to violence and to where they lived, then it is indeed a true threat without question, and the conviction is valid. It doesn’t matter that it was part of a song or a video, it doesn’t matter that rappers in the past have been questionably targeted, and it doesn’t matter that they are black.

    1. I was thinking that if the song is anywhere close to the description, these guys don’t stand a chance.

    2. According to what the article appears to say, I believe your wrong. The article says that SCOTUS ruled that “true threat” required proof of intent to act upon the threats.

      That doesn’t really seem to align with the way this case went, so I think Zuri Davis owes us a bit of explanation.

  3. Smart move. I decline to listen to that Rap shit too.

    1. Except for Subterranean Homesick Blues, right?

      1. Fuck tha music police!

  4. “I’m going to fucking murder you!”
    “Officer, that man threatened to murder me!”
    “Oh, lighten up, it was just a joke!”

    I’m not really sure this becomes more excusable if you set it to music.

    1. Throw some light acoustic guitar behind it, and it’s practically John Denver.

  5. Yeah, free speech is not an absolute in this country, and threatening people will get you spanked.

  6. Cuban-American pop music is not immune either.

    Go away
    Would you please go away
    Go away,
    You’re outa here come what may (go away, just go away now)
    Hit the road,
    Don’t bother to say goodbye.
    Don’t care how,
    Don’t even matter why (go away, just go away now)
    And when you go
    I won’t miss you at all
    And when you go
    I’ll be having a ball
    You will see
    Thoughts of you
    Won’t ever cross my mind
    It’s the truth
    Don’t mean to be unkind

  7. These nice young men, just wanting to spread some culture with their songs about their real life experiences… Oh, the injustice of it all!

  8. “the brief cited a study where a social psychologist found disproportionately negative reactions when lyrics were presented as rap instead of country.”

    What about vice versa (NSFW)?

  9. When a b____ piss me off, I look for somewhere to dip her
    I stuff her right into a w__________
    Yo, m_____f_____, you just got served
    In Hell a place for you is reserved

  10. Does the Reason staff have the courage to take a stand on this, one way or the other? Interesting, huh. Maybe they’re still “studying” the issue.

  11. […] The Supreme Court Declines to Hear the Case of a Rapper Convicted for His Anti-Cop Lyrics. […]

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