Threatening Police in Rap Song Not Protected Speech

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on August 24, 2018 | Last updated on November 29, 2021

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the lower court's finding of witness intimidation and terrorists threats when they rejected rapper Jamal Knox's free speech claim in a music video entitled "F--- the Police." In that video, Knox, using the name Mayhem Mal, threatens to kill the two police officers and an informant that led to his conviction on a 2012 drug charge.

Less Is More, Just Ask N.W.A.

If Knox had merely stuck with the title "F--- the Police" and not elaborated so much in the lyrics, like N.W.A did on their Straight Outta Compton album back in the 1980s, there may have been no legal action taken against Knox.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania and the Defender Association of Philadelphia filed amicus briefs to support Knox's contention that the song was just a song without any intent for the police to hear it. After all, Knox didn't post the song to YouTube, the song's only publisher, and contends he had no intent that the police would indeed hear it. But the court decided that Knox had taken matters too far in recording the video and being so descriptive in his lyrics.

The judges reasoned that the lyrics themselves were "both threatening and highly personalized to the victims." Even the dissenting opinion found that Knox intended to communicate a true threat.

Freedom of Speech ... Just Watch What You Say

In order to convict Knox, the prosecution had to prove specific intent to harm. Though Knox argues that the video was strictly artistic and not intended as an actual threat, the court didn't buy it. In doing so, the prosecution proved that Knox had intent to intimidate and harm the police and informants well beyond just generalities. Knox names the police officers, and states how and where he was going to kill them, in rather specific terms.

Though Knox tried to argue a free speech defense, the court did not accept that either, stating that the lyrics were neither political, social or academic commentary, nor satirical or ironic. The court reasoned that if they would allow Knox's lyrics First Amendment protection, then "we would in effect be interpreting the Constitution to provide blanket protection for threats, however severe, so long as they are expressed within that musical style." As Ice-T so eloquently stated on the cover of his third album Freedom of Speech ... Just Watch What You Say.

If you are an artist, and feel that your freedom of speech has been violated, contact a local civil rights attorney, who can discuss your situation, and offer you the legal advice you need.

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