The Bill of Rights, written by James Madison, memorializes a list of rights for American citizens. Overall, these civil rights guarantee certain liberties to the individual, and within these rights, there is not a more debated and often controversial right than the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.
As you may recall from constitutional law class, the limits and breadth of the phrase “Congress shall make no laws . . . abridging freedom of speech” has landed directly in the laps of our US Supreme Court Justices on many occasions. But what happens when claims of freedom of speech are mixed with cultural and racial themes? What happens when that mixture of race, culture, and speech explodes onto the national scene and requires a legal system, which historically is not culturally or racially diverse, to provide a subjective judicial review? Those questions were at the center of the recent case of African American rapper Jamal Knox, aka Mayhem Mal.
In 2013, a Pennsylvania trial court found Knox guilty on two counts of terroristic threats and two counts of witness intimidation for his lyrics in the song “F*ck the Police.” The court and subsequent state appellate courts rejected Knox’s argument that his rap lyrics were protected speech.
The lyrics in question named two actual police officers and the following text:
Let's kill these cops cuz they don't do us no good / pullin out your Glock out 'cause I live in the 'hood.
So now they gonna chase me through these streets / And I'ma jam this rusty knife all in his guts and chop his feet / You taking money away from Beaz and all my shit away from me / Well your shift over at three and I'm gonna fuck up where you sleep.
Pennsylvania successfully argued that the speech was not protected and were actual threats against the officers’ lives. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote that the lyrics lacked any “political, social, or academic commentary, nor are they facially satirical or ironic.”
Recently, the case began to gain national attention when prominent hip-hop artists, such as Killer Mike, Chance the Rapper, 21 Savage, and Meek Mill, submitted an amicus brief in hopes that Knox’s freedom of speech argument would be heard by the US Supreme Court. Their brief accused the Pennsylvania legal system of being “deeply unaware of popular music generally and rap music specifically.” In April 2019, the US Supreme Court declined to hear Knox’s appeal, ensuring that he would spend between two and six years in prison for his rap lyrics.
Many historians view rap as modern-day poetry that continues a centuries-old tradition of musical storytelling within the African American community. Consider that Kendrick Lamar won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for music. The genre is widely accepted around the globe, and the Pennsylvania court decision demonstrates a complete lack of understanding. The idea that someone could receive between two and six years in prison for rap is not just an injustice. It is objectively wrong.